Zahoor in his hotel room in Aksu, Xinxiang, China. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen

A Bird in the Hand is Worth a Bundle

At the back of a bus, crossing the harshest desert on earth, I met a man with unusual baggage. We were travelling the most miserable stretch of highway ever created; the long road between Urumqui and Kashgar in China’s westernmost province, Xianjiang. For three days, at fifteen hours a day, we jolted along on the edge of my senses.

The word desert is a misleading description. This is not a place of aesthetic sand dunes and palm tree oasis’. The rocky desert floor stretches to the horizon from each edge of the road. The gravel road itself seems like an minor intrusion on the landscape and you feel that desert only needs to shift slightly to reclaim the sliver of civilisation that scars it.

It was on the evening of the second day that I met Zahoor. A voice out of the dark asked, “Are you speaking English?”. It was a golden question on that lonely bus ride. We were both aliens in China and were eager for conversation, even with Zahoor’s broken English. It was a black night without a moon and we remained only voices to each other at first as we bumped along the washboard road.

Zahoor told me he was a Pakistani “businessman”, and his only possession was a seemingly empty sports bag on the floor between his legs. Since China is one of the few countries to issue visas to Pakistanis, thousands of men pour across the border to buy enormous amounts of goods for export back to Pakistan. Zahoor, however, wasn’t laden down with tea sets, televisions, bundles of silk or small electric ovens like most of his compatriots. He told me simply that his business was “birds”.

It was an intriguing answer. Certainly, in Hong Kong and many parts of eastern China small singing birds are prized pets kept in ornamental cages. But this was the Takla Makan desert and we were thousands of kilometres from the closest cute, yellow canary singing happily in the sun.

When I questioned him further he simply reached into his bag and pulled out a large object. In the dark I couldn’t see a thing but a set of approaching headlights slowly filled up the interior of the bus. I caught my first glimpse of Zahoor. He was a short man with a thick, well-trimmed moustache and wearing a peak cap. His small eyes were almost black and there was a nasty scar running down his jaw. Despite his warm smile in the strange light you could sense a hardened soul.

In his hand there was an object all the more amazing in the brief shock of light. It was a large bird of prey with it’s feet and wings tightly bound with cloth and string. It cocked it’s head several times before the headlights faded, trying to get it’s bearings. Zahoor shrugged a Brando shrug and placed the bird carefully back in his bag.

I sat a bit stunned in the darkness until I finally asked him where he got the bird and what on earth he was going to do with it. I feared the worst, speculating wildly that perhaps the feathers or beak were used in some bizarre Chinese medicine. Maybe the beak could be ground up and used to cure adolescent acne. Such things are not unlikely in that part of the world. Instead, he told me that he was going to take it to Peshawar, in northern Pakistan, where he would sell it. I suggested to him that that was surely illegal.

He answered by chuckling in the dark and I could sense he was grinning. My curiosity began working overtime and I bombarded him with questions; where did he get it, who would buy it, how can he cross the border?

Perhaps it was the boredom of that endless bus trip and the need for conversation that encouraged Zahoor to answer all my questions about his trade in a quiet and unassuming manner.

Capturing a falcon is, by far, the most difficult part of the big picture. It involves travelling out into the desert, into the foothills of the mighty Tian Shan range that form the border between south-western China and Central Asia. In that harsh and unforgiving environment you build a small, round stone hut with a hole in the roof and barely enough room to sit up straight.

You must have some fresh meat with you or, even better, a couple of live pigeons to use as bait. Secure the meat or the pigeon outside the hole in the roof with some string and carefully position a small snare around it.

There you sit and wait, sometimes for several days. Your limbs become cramped and you can’t risk going outside during daylight. At night you can walk around and stretch, but the temperature will often drop well below freezing.

During the day your eyes strain as you concentrate on the small gap of sky visible through the hole in the roof as you watch for approaching falcons. Even if and when the exciting moment arrives, and a beautiful bird of prey soars down to snatch your bait, it is still a question of luck and timing to activate the snare at the precise moment.

It seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to until you understand what kind of money is involved. I made sure that Zahoor and his broken English had the numbers straight when he told me that he could hope to earn up to $20,000 USD , but it was the most fluent thing he said all day.

When we arrived in the desert outpost of Aksu for our overnight stop, we were put in the same room since we were both foreigners — a common practice in provincial Chinese hotels. Once inside our room, Zahoor locked the door and unbundled the bird. It furiously flapped it’s wings and ruffled it’s feathers indignantly. She was a glorious member of the animal kingdom; Falco Peregrinus. One of the most endangered species in the world.

Her head and neck were greyish-brown, her chest a dull, peppered white and her back and tail marked with broken bars of a cinnamon colour. She measured 33 cm in height and, given her immature markings, could hope to grow another 11 cm by adulthood. If she survived the journey.

Every few minutes on the bus Zahoor had checked in the bag to see if she was alive as she could die without notice from stress, suffocation or starvation.

When Zahoor held her up, perched on his fist, I noticed the eyes. They were “seeled”, an eastern falconer’s practice to render the bird temporarily and partially blind. A needle and thread are used to pierce each inner eyelid and draw them forcibly up to cover the eyes. The thread is tied in a bow on the top of the bird’s head. The European falconer’s equivalent is the leather hood.

This majestic bird, who only three days before could spot the slightest movement on the ground from a great height could now only react to shadows and sudden movements near her head. This must have been comforting to Zahoor, however, who showed me countless scars on his hands from previous beaks and talons.

We went to sleep in the cold dormitory beneath our thick Chinese duvets. It was disconcerting to share a room with such a extraordinary member of the natural world. Through the night the peregrine restlessly flapped it’s wings between fitful dozes.

I didn’t sleep well either, and although I was intrigued by the whole affair and spent the next couple of weeks looking into it further, that first night is still disturbing.

In the morning Zahoor told me that he was going off into the desert to try and catch himself another falcon. I wanted very much to come along but he politely declined my offer. With his Pakistani appearance he blended in well with indigenous population in Western China, the Uighurs. The covert falcon hunting wouldn’t be very covert with an inquisitive, western journalist tagging along and sticking out like a sore thumb. I boarded the bus to continue down the hellish road, south to Kashgar.

In the days of the Silk Route between Asia and Europe Kashgar served as the central meeting point. The Kazaks, Uzbeks and all the traders from the Middle East came over the mountains from the west. Those from the Indian sub-continent came from the south. The Russians popped down from the north and the Chinese crossed the desert from the east.

Present-day borders no longer allow such a mammoth group of people to congregate, but Kashgar stills boasts the largest Sunday market in Asia, with over 100,000 people gathering each week to carry on the region’s rich trading history.

Among them are the Pakistanis, and among those Pakistanis are the falcon smugglers. It is appropriate that given Kashgar’s timeless history as a trading centre, it now serves as the main centre for the illicit falcon trade.

After meeting Zahoor I was intent on finding out more about this little-known niche in the world of animal trafficking. In Kashgar I found several falcon traders and casually interviewed them about their business. They are a quiet, shifty group of people, largely loners, who keep to themselves and away from the larger groups of more boisterous Pakistanis.

It is here I learned about the extent of the trade. There are many options open to those who dabble in falcon trafficking. Depending on the size and quality of the Peregrine or Saker falcon, a price between $14.000 and $20.000 can be earned by catching the bird and travelling back to Pakistan to sell it. If you weren’t a member of the Boy Scouts and don’t fancy camping in the desert, not to worry. For between $5000 and $8000 you can buy a bird in Kashgar and smuggle over the border yourself.

I found it surprising that getting caught is no more than an inconvenience. If you are nicked on the Chinese side of the line, they fine you around $400 (prices vary according to the moods of the border guards), let the bird go free and slap you on the wrist.

If you are caught on by the Pakistani authorities, however, your safe passage depends on your negotiation techniques. One smuggler I met showed me, with a big, stupid grin, the $800 he keeps in his sock for the sole purpose of bribing the well-fed, lazy customs officials in Sust, on the opposite side of the Khunjerab Pass.

The same flexible rules apply for importing alcohol or oversized loads of silk but for Pakistan, who is under intense pressure to preserve rare species like the snow leopard and the Marco polo sheep, to allow such obvious trafficking to occur is deplorable.

In any healthy market economy, there must be demand to create supply. The main factor in the equation are wealthy Arabs from the money-rich Gulf States who are avid proponents of the ancient sport of falconry. With no lack of disposable cash, they fly to Pakistan regularly to purchase new falcons for their stables, placing a high level of status on quality and quantity.

Even though, by all accounts, the birds are well-cared for and treated with respect once in the hands of their respective Arab owners, the demand is creating a serious depletion in the populations of the Peregrine and Saker falcons. I won’t question the sport but I’ll happily criticise the acquisition of the equipment. Already the mountainous regions on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have been picked clean of birds of prey.

The move northwards is a recent one. Fifteen years ago the Karakorum Highway between the Pakistan and China was completed, following the ancient Silk Road route to Kashgar. An estimated 2.000 prospective bird smugglers board crowded buses each year, to travel the treacherous highway and chase their $20.000.

Zahoor himself spends five months each year in the region, from August to September. He claims 25 successes in three years, with five attempts thwarted at the Chinese border. He has always made it past the Pakistani border control, whether caught or not. Like most of the other falcon smugglers I spoke with he didn’t mind my questions but, at one point, felt as though he should justify his work.

In the volatile and lawless Khyber Pass region, where he is from, most people are involved with heroin or arms deals. He told me that at least catching falcons didn’t hurt people. It was a Robin Hood statement from this roguish character, but I believe it was sincere.

But that doesn’t make it right. In China and Pakistan, Falco Perigrinus is listed as an endangered species. It is illegal to capture, keep or cross borders with the bird. To trade in Saker falcons a permit is required and difficult to obtain. These countries have signed an international treaty to this effect. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell those people who travel and inhabit the remote desert and mountain regions in south-western China and northern Pakistan.

Their remote location has been a blessing for them. Even the various international organisations dedicated to preservation have little or no knowledge of this specific pipeline for animal smuggling.

At over 3000 metres at the Chinese border post of Pirali, just a few ramshackle buildings on the far edge of the nation, an enormous falcon was seen to be soaring in large, slow majestic circles over the stony valley. It was a source of interest to many of the passengers as we lounged around waiting to clear customs on our way to Pakistan. It was a cold, sunny November day and the birds fantastic wingspan was clearly defined against a pale blue sky.

I couldn’t blame the rest of the Pakistani passengers for seeing something completely different. A commodity far more valuable than the 50 Chinese tea sets in their luggage. I could see the dollar signs in their eyes as we watched the falcon. Even for me, a $20,000 US boost to my bank account would be a welcome thing and I could put it to good use. For those smugglers from Pakistan, where the average earning is under $500 per year, it would be of astronomical worth.

For a brief moment my smug, condescending western attitude towards animal conservation drifted away and I smelled the sweet scent of the smuggler’s dream of rising out of poverty and finding a better life.

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