In Putin’s Russia, rare birds are just a money-making commodity

‘The Russian’s gift to the monarch was an arctic bird that, like Putin, had no natural place in the desert: a white Gyrfalcon, a powerful raptor that can be trained by its master to kill on command’

Wild Life
A gyrfalcon given as a gift from Vladimir Putin to King Salman of Saudi Arabia (©ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo)

When Vladimir Putin visited Saudi Arabia recently, the bald, strutting president’s greeting by the bearded, stooping king was a study in contrasts. Yet the pair had something striking in common—and not just billions of barrels of oil. The Russian’s gift to the monarch was an arctic bird that, like Putin, had no natural place in the desert: a white Gyrfalcon, a powerful raptor that can be trained by its master to kill on command. A year before the visit, a dissident Saudi had been sawn into pieces in Istanbul allegedly on orders from Riyadh;  months later a Russian citizen was shot dead in Berlin, seemingly on orders from Moscow. The bird thus accidentally symbolised a binding element between visitor and host.

For centuries foreign leaders have presented exotic animals to each other. In 801, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid gave Charlemagne an elephant. King Manuel I of Portugal sent one to Pope Leo X in 1515 that caused a popular sensation. In 1826 Egypt’s Mohamed Ali shipped a giraffe to Charles X of France, and tens of thousands massed to see it. In recent times China has launched salvoes of Giant Pandas overseas—guided missiles of soft power.

Falconry’s popularity among princes has made birds of prey part of these exchanges. The Gyrfalcon, largest of the falcons, restricted to the northern polar regions and elegantly chequered grey or glamorously white, holds a special cachet. In 1291, Edward I sent Gyrfalcons to the distant Mongol Khan with whom he was negotiating an alliance against the Moors. He received a leopard in return. To mark the establishment of amiable Anglo-Russian relations Ivan the Terrible sent a Gyrfalcon to Mary I (Bloody Mary). She trumped him with
two lions.

Historically these gifts served as diplomatic currency and fed the vanity of both giver and receiver. Over time the practice became less personal and less spectacular. The creatures were once valuable because of their great rarity (or complete absence) in the countries to which they were sent. In a sombre development, they are now often very rare in the countries from which they are despatched.

In Russia for several hundred years ownership of Gyrfalcons was a monopoly of the Tsar. Trappers were paid an allowance to bring the birds to him—although legislation also stated that royal falconers “found drunken, quarrelsome . . . or merely stupid are to be transported in chains to the Lena [river]”. In the Soviet era Gyrfalcons were first treated as vermin and only much later protected. Today, it is illegal to take them from the wild without explicit permission from the agriculture ministry, which has to be satisfied that a valid scientific purpose will be served. Russia’s ratification of CITES, the convention on trade in endangered species, means that the bird cannot be transported abroad except under stringent conditions.

In 1994, the Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, planned to take Gyrfalcons as gifts on a visit to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Two falconers trapped a pair in the Russian Far East with help from the FSB (the KGB’s successor) and brought them to Moscow where each falconer was rewarded with an SUV. The plan was stymied by an outcry from Russian public opinion, which harbours deep attachment to the natural environment.

Wild Gyrfalcons are nowhere common in their wide circumpolar range. In Russia they are a threatened species. The principal threat comes from trapping and smuggling. A legally reared white Russian Gyrfalcon fetches an average of $150,000 abroad. For 20 years, Russian experts have warned that smuggling the wild Gyrfalcons of Kamchatka (the home of Putin’s gift) threatens them with extinction. A decade ago a thorough study by a criminologist, Tanya Wyatt, established that organised crime groups run this business with assistance from corrupt officials and transport staff. She detailed the cruelty involved: these noble birds, sometimes with their eyelids sewn shut, are rammed into narrow tubes, and stuffed into sweltering hiding places, often to die during their terrible journeys.

CITES seems ill-equipped to prevent this smuggling, rather as the World Anti-Doping Agency proved until recently impotent to deal with the scandalous use of banned drugs in Russian athletics. In 2011, the FSB estimated that hundreds of Gyrfalcons were being smuggled from Kamchatka each year—at a time when Russian ornithologists estimated the total population was just 500 pairs. In February 2011, the governor of Kamchatka proposed increasing the penalties. Days later he was dismissed without explanation.

The bird given to King Salman came (we are told) from a captive breeding centre in Kamchatka, and according to the Russian propaganda broadcaster RT had all the necessary documentation to make its export legal. Its provider was Shukrat Razakov, who runs a controversial falcon breeding centre in Kyrgyzstan (in partnership with an Emirati and a Russian cement manufacturer). He now plans to establish a vast breeding centre in Kamchatka with an initial $230 million investment from private Russian and UAE backers, to rear 1,000 falcons a year, some of which will apparently be released to the wild. Russian experts ridicule this venture and its pretensions to aid conservation.

Putin’s visit may have helped bolster the oil price on which both countries depend, but it may accelerate the sad decline of the species. It looks not just like an anachronistic echo of the swapping of exotic animals between potentates, but what would in other circumstances be called trafficking.