The Sticking Place

Rare falcons die in Spain’s net of bureaucracy

by Derek Ive, Almeria and Margarette Driscoll

After surviving the war in the Gulf and an odyssey across Africa in search of a home in England, a collection of the world’s most valuable hunting birds is now in danger of being destroyed by a bureaucratic wrangle.

Already a fifth of the 126 rare breeding falcons from Saudi Arabia have perished in Spain while a dispute over whether they can continue their journey is sorted out.

Kept for nine months in unsuitable conditions and without proper food, 23 of the birds, among them two Imperial eagles. have died. The rest, natives of China, Tibet and Afghanistan, are in mortal danger.

While they remain trapped in a net of bureaucracy, the breeding programme that produced many of the birds — including sakers, peregrines and gyrs — which helped to repopulate areas where they had become virtually extinct, has been put on hold.

The birds belong to Peter Whitehead, the former director of the Al Faisal falcon centre in Saudi Arabia. After the outbreak of the Gulf war, the centre was closed and Whitehead, who was given the falcons by Prince Khaled, son of the late King Faisal and the centre’s sponsor, decided to bring the birds to England.

In February, unable to get a direct flight to Britain, Whitehead flew the birds to Morocco and continued by boat to Spain.

In Algeciras he was given what he thought were correct entry documents for the birds, which were housed in a former quail farm. Later, when he tried to take the birds to Britain, he was caught in a Kafkaesque dispute.

No export licence could be issued as the import licences were deemed to be invalid. In spite of the fact that Whitehead had, and still has, valid import documents for Britain, the Spanish authorities found that they could not even issue a transit licence without the relevant import documents.

The tentacles of bureaucracy now embrace the Spanish customs, the local. government of Almeria, the regional Andalusian leadership, the Madrid and Lausanne branches of Cites (the convention on international trade in endangered species) and the British Department of the Environment.

But as the mountain of paperwork grows ever larger, Whitehead is no nearer to getting the birds back: “The Spanish let the birds in, but now they won’t let them out,” he said. “It is really heartbreaking. It’s 20 years of my life ruined by grey-faced bureaucrats who wouldn’t know one end of a falcon from the other.”

One of the birds was a gift from Khaled to the Duke of Edinburgh, who keeps falcons at Balmoral. He visited the Al Faisal centre several years ago and has expressed his concern over the falcons’ plight.

Whitehead’s father-in-law, the ecologist Teddy Goldsmith, who with John Aspillall, owner of Howletts zoo, set up the Saker Foundation to run the breeding programme in Britain, has tried to intervene but to no avail.

Most of Whitehead’s problems appear to have been caused by the illegal trade in wild falcons. The birds, prized in the Arab world for hunting, can be worth up to £50,000 each. Because Whitehead’s import permits were not properly issued, Spanish officials have decided that the collection entered Spain illegally.

They have launched an investigation into the falcons’ ownership in spite of a statement from the Saudi Arabian embassy in Madrid that the birds belong to Whitehead. Last week the falcons were seized by environmental officers who will keep them, according to a spokesman, “until such time as their rightful owner is proven and the correct papers for their movement are presented.”

As a result of the Spaniards’ suspicions, Jose Rodriguez, who cared for the birds in the decrepit quail sheds, has kept the dead birds in a fridge “so that nobody can later accuse me of selling them,”

Whitehead argues that it is absurd for anyone to imagine his collection might be connected to illegal trade: “If I wanted to sell them, why would I have brought them out Of Saudi? I could have flogged the lot for $200,000 in the market in Riyadh.

“What they don’t seem to realise is that this programme is my life. The fact that the future of the saker in the wild may depend on our breeding programme seems to be of no interest to them. This is a scientific programme, not a travelling bird show.”

Whitehead fears that the Spanish government will confiscate the birds to establish their own centre as a tourist attraction. On Friday the directors of the Almeria Department of Agricultural Investigation met to discuss just such a plan.

Spanish customs in Madrid seemed to indicate that be was right: “If Peter Whitehead had come to us with all the correct licences a few days after arriving in Spain, he could have taken the falcons to England,” said Margarita Jiminez, who is dealing with the case. “But he didn’t turn up. Where the birds are now, and who has got them is not our concern. The customs office has not yet made a final decision about whether the birds will ever be allowed to leave Spain.”

The Sunday Times, 17 November 1991

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