Over 40 years ago the founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, noted the decline of Houbara numbers in the wild. This was a result of a variety of issues, including; urban expansion, increase use of land for agriculture, poaching and unregulated hunting. Sheikh Zayed concluded that the situation was not sustainable and feared for the future survival of an iconic bird intrinsically linked to Arabic culture and heritage.

A committed environmentalist, Sheikh Zayed initiated Abu Dhabi’s Houbara conservation programme in the 1970s based on a vision to sustain wildlife through the preservation of heritage and underpinned by principles that promote sustainability and maintain ecological balance. This was to be achieved by advancing knowledge and understanding of the species and applying the latest scientific capabilities and techniques to breed Houbara in captivity and release them into the wild to support and conserve wild populations of Houbara across its entire range.

The groundbreaking initiative had very humble beginnings. In 1977 work began at Al Ain zoo on developing a greater understanding of the habitat and behaviour of the bird based on a few donated birds. Following scientific study of these birds, in 1982, the first captive-bred Houbara chick in the UAE was hatched, signaling the start of a programme, which has subsequently grown into one of the world’s leading conservation programmes.

Following this initial break-through to produce captive-bred Houbara, in 1989 the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) was established to take the Houbara project to the next level. NARC was dedicated to develop the pioneering work of scientists by increasing the number of Houbara chicks that could be bred in captivity. The scientists faced many barriers, such as how to ensure the genetic viability of the flock and replicating natural conditions for the release of Houbara into the wild.

In 1994 the first satellite tracking device was fitted to a Houbara so that its movements could be followed. At this point very little was known about the complete migratory pattern or behaviour of the species. As a result of the data compiled through satellite tracking and field studies, a fuller picture of Houbara migration and its behaviour became much clearer. Additionally, in 1994, the first field studies were carried out in Kazakhstan; an important country for the Houbara as it home to over 50 per cent of the global Houbara population. 

In recognition of the vast international range of the species, in 1995 the Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation (ECWP) was opened in Morocco to produce captive-bred Houbara for release in North Africa. At this point the Houbara was regarded as a single species (it was only in 2014 that the taxonomy of the Houbara was officially divided into two distinct species – Asian and North African Houbara). Like its counterpart in Abu Dhabi, ECWP was initially focused on bird production and conducting scientific research on the species and environmental conditions.

As production numbers gradually increased during the formative years of NARC and ECWP, the Houbara programme began releasing captive-bred birds into the wild. The first such releases occurred in North Africa in 1998, followed by the first release in the UAE in 2004.

In 2006, IFHC was established to manage the full scope of the programme’s operations. IFHC had an objective to produce 50,000 Houbara chicks every year. Additional capacity would be required in order to reach this target, and over the next decade a further three breeding facilities were added to IFHC’s portfolio.

In 2006 a second facility was opened at Enjil in Morocco to breed Houbara for release in North Africa. In the UAE a second facility – the Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Centre – Abu Dhabi (SKHBC-AD) began full production in 2012. Whilst in Kazakhstan temporary facilities for breeding were established in 2008 with the construction of a permanent facility beginning in 2011. As a result of its investment in captive breeding of Houbara, IFHC reached its target of annually producing 50,000 Houbara in 2016 bringing to total to over 360,000 birds bred by IFHC in its managed facilities since 1996.

At the same time that the breeding programme has increased, the number of Houbara released into the wild has also increased. The release of Houbara in North Africa began with just 2 male birds in 1998, while the first release of Houbara in the UAE consisted of 5 birds. By 2017 these figures have greatly increased. Since 1998 more than 260,000 Houbara have been provided for conservation release or hunting, which reinforce the wild population.

The increase of the release programme is also reflected in the expansion in the number of range countries where captive-bred birds from Abu Dhabi’s Houbara programme have been released into the wild. Since the first birds were released in the UAE and Morocco, an additional 12 countries have received birds from the captive breeding programme to release to help support wild populations of Houbara.

Reflecting the holistic approach to conservation taken by IFHC, in 2013 IFHC began providing captive-bred Houbara to falconers in the UAE to train their falcons. This initiative not only helps to maintain thousands of years of tradition and culture, but does so in a sustainable way. By reducing the demand for Houbara the black market trade in this rare bird is deflated, and in so doing take the pressure off wild populations.

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