In Pakistan, a hunt for the million-dollar falcons

March 30, 2012

So what happened to the million-dollar falcons?

That’s the question Pakistani officials have to answer for a wealthy Arab sheikh who alleges that the government snatched his four rare falcons — valued at 350 million rupees, or nearly $3.9 million — from the Islamabad airport.

The birds apparently were released into the wild — but maybe not. Customs and wildlife officials have been ordered to produce the falcons.

Sheikh Muhammad Sultan Ahmed Mualla, a United Arab Emirates prince, filed a lawsuit this month to force officials to hand over the birds. The sheikh says the falcons were brought into the country legally, with all required passports, visas and medical certificates.

The lawsuit states that the situation “may affect foreign relations of both the countries and will lower the prestige of Pakistan in the comity of nations,” according to local media.

Falcons in the UAE are issued passports to combat illegal trading and smuggling of the birds. They are in high demand in the region because they are used in the centuries-old sport of falconry, which is popular in the Middle East.

The prince brought the birds to Pakistan to give to friends, according to The News, a daily newspaper here. But given recent events, he has decided to take the birds back to the UAE. If he can recover them, that is.

Customs officials claim that the sheikh lacked the requisite paperwork. So, realizing the valuable birds would need special care and handling, they requested that the Wildlife Department take custody of them for safekeeping until the owner provided the necessary documents.

But wildlife officials say the falcons were unaccompanied and because no one came to claim them within 12 hours, they were released into the wild.

“They had no legal documents,” Wildlife Department deputy director Raja Javed said. “If you have falcons, you must claim them.”

Wildlife officials orchestrated elaborate media coverage, convening journalists and television crews to document the four captives being released into the air and using the event as an opportunity to tout ongoing efforts to stop illegal falcon smuggling.

What exactly happened remains murky — and both agencies are in a PR mode and offering competing narratives. But some believe there has been foul play.

“It is strongly suspected that the falcons flown into the air are not the original ones and the originals have been kept with some greedy motivations,” said The News reporter Umar Cheema, who has been covering the scandal. “The entire thing is embarrassing for everyone.”

Federal tax authorities ordered television stations covering the release of the falcons to turn over footage of the event. The film could reveal whether common falcons were substituted for the rare birds.

So will the government produce the falcons in court?

“They have been freed and we do not know where they are,” Javed said. “These are migratory birds. They migrate and they pass through Pakistan.”

And, he noted: “This is migration season.”

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