Illegal Great Bustard hunting in Syria threatens species

Posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Warning: some readers may find this footage disturbing.

Footage has recently come to light showing Syrian hunters displaying the carcasses of four adult Great Bustards. There are claims that one of the participants is the brother of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with many anti-establishment comments on the video, posted on YouTube, seeming to support this assertion.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLvOveguA0Y

A hunter holding two dead Great Bustards

One of the hunters poses with two of the dead birds

The video, uploaded this February, shows the hunters taking turns to pose with the four dead birds on the bonnet of their 4×4, before arranging the corpses to amuse each other, one of their group lifting two of the birds heads like puppets. One of the men goes on to mockingly kiss one of the birds on the head for more photographs.

As the hunters climb across their car to be photographed, one of the birds carcasses falls from the bonnet of the vehicle onto the ground, before being thrown back in place by one of the older men. Several members of their party then take turns holding the birds up by their primary feathers, to show the wing spans of their kills to the camera.

David Waters, Great Bustard Group Director, said:

The GBG is concerned about the hunting of any Bustard species in an uncontrolled manner. The status of the Syrian population is not well known, but it would appear to be in decline. Uncontrolled, and in this case illegal, hunting is well known to be detrimental to Great Bustard populations, and has historically caused several national extinctions.

One of the bodies falls from the hunters' 4x4

Great Bustards are slow maturing and long lived birds, and ones which do not lend themselves to being harvested as a quarry species. The four adult males, all shot in their breeding plumage, shown in the film clip may represent a significant part of the local population.

Great Bustards are migratory, and travel several hundred kilometres during European winters. Flocks of hundreds of Great Bustards used to arrive in northern Syria, but their status in the region is now unknown, with no recent evidence of breeding in the area.

Globally, Great bustards have a status of ‘Near Threatened’, with their numbers being impacted by the upsurge of large-scale farming over the last half-century. Historically, hunting has been an ever-present threat to the species, their impressive plumage and stature making them highly desired trophies. Great Bustards are among several other species of birds whose numbers in the Middle East are in decline, due in no small part to hunting.

Two Great Bustard Hunters

The hunters play for the cameras with their kills

All forms of hunting are illegal in Syria, meaning there are no hunting agencies, with guns only being legally available through the government, however many firearms are illegally manufactured on a small scale within the country, whilst larger volumes are smuggled in from Russia and Italy via Lebanon.

The video has already garnered over 100,000 views on video sharing site YouTube, with many negative comments directed towards the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Maher al-Assad his brother, shown in this video. The majority of comments are in Arabic and express distrusting and openly hostile sentiments towards the president, who has faced countrywide and international criticism, since the beginnings of the Syrian uprising, which began in January this year and lead to government violence against its citizens.

The Assad family, Maher al-Assad, far left

Apart from its well-know subject, this footage is notable not only for its clearly identifying law-breakers and the registration of their Syrian vehicle, but also for the music track laid over the footage and the stills at the end of the video, suggesting it was edited and uploaded by one of the participants, rather than having been leaked by a third party.

In the UK and many other countries, Great Bustards continue to be a conservation priority for many individuals and organisations, with responsible hunting and land management practices focusing on methods for keeping vulnerable bird populations protected.

Alex Stott

Posted by Alex Stott

Alex runs the Great Bustard Group website and online shop.

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