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Kyrgyzstan: Falcon Smuggling Furore

Poaching scandal threatens to blow up into political row as protected species turns up at Russian airbase.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Politicians in Kyrgyzstan are incensed at the discovery of a consignment of rare falcons at the Russian military airbase outside the capital Bishkek.


It’s not the first time police have intercepted an attempt to smuggle Central Asian birds of prey to the Middle East, where they are prized by falconers.


But this case has caused a furore, since it took place at the Russian military base which enjoys privileged status. It is believed the smugglers exploited this immunity as a way of spiriting the protected species out of the country without going through customs.


Prosecutors are not suggesting the Russian military was involved in the crime, but Kyrgyz politicians are asking some hard questions about how criminals could be granted such easy access.


On October 27, prosecution officials discovered wooden crates containing 127 saker falcons on a runway at Kant as it was about to be loaded onto a plane heading for Syria. This was a large consignment, and would have fetched at least a million US dollars.


Prosecutor Galina Pugachyova from the Special Prosecutions Office said her colleagues had been aware of the smuggling scheme well in advance.


“We were just waiting for the right moment to catch the smugglers with irrefutable evidence,” Pugachyova told journalists.


Her team detained a man who was unloading the crates from a minibus. Nearby stood an Ilyushin Il-18 commercial airliner which had, as it later transpired, been hired by a Kyrgyz tourist firm.


“Now an investigation is in progress into the smuggling case as well as the plane and its customers,” the prosecution office told IWPR.


The Russian base, which hosts a number of fighter planes and about 500 military personnel, enjoys special legal status and is impossible to enter without a special permit.


Prosecution officials used the presence of a civilian aircraft to demand access to the base. Zamirbek Kaliev, who heads the nature protection office in the prosecution service, told IWPR, “My colleagues and I got into the aerodrome under the pretext of inspecting the work of my country’s [Kyrgyzstan’s] customs and border control officers, whose job is to check civilian airplanes at the base.”


Syrgak Alymbekov, director of the Falcon Centre in Kyrgyzstan where the birds were kept after they were confiscated, said the illegal export of hunting birds to Arab countries is now on such a large scale that some species face total extinction in the region.


The saker falcon, now rare all across its habitat ranging from eastern Europe to Central Asia, is a protected by law in Kyrgyzstan. It is particularly in demand as one of the largest falcon species and an aggressive hunter, and Arab falconers will pay anything from 20,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for one bird, depending on its age and condition.


“It is no secret that billionaire sheikhs who are fans of these birds will pay huge amounts for saker falcons,” said Alymbekov. “So dealers are prepared to do anything to catch as many birds as possible.”


There are suspicions that this batch of saker falcons may have come from areas further afield as well as the Kyrgyz mountains. Anatoly Kovshar, head of ornithology at Kazakstan’s Academy of Sciences, travelled to Bishkek when he heard the news. “There are suspicions that the poachers were operating all across Central Asia and even in Russia,” he told IWPR.


Meanwhile, the more immediate question is how a civilian airliner ended up parked on the runway at a military base ringed by armed guards.


“The fact that the smugglers found a loophole at the military aerodrome makes one wonder,” said Kovshar. “Maybe they saw that the controls were tighter at the civilian airports in Almaty [in Kazakstan] and Bishkek.”


Prosecutors say there is as yet no reason to suspect the Russian military were involved. The only person to be arrested – the man unloading the boxes containing the falcons - is a Kyrgyzstan national who is thought to have been a minor player in the smuggling ring.


The case could prove politically embarrassing as many observers believe the Russian base, opened in October 2003, was a strategic move by Moscow to counterbalance the airbase the United States-led Coalition established in Kyrgyzstan after September 2001.


Several members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament are now pushing for a debate on the case.


Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, chairman of the parliamentary committee responsible for transport, voiced open concern that Russian troops may have played a role. “Given the high level of corruption in the Russian army’s officer corps, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that foreign troops were involved in a deal of this kind,” he told IWPR.


Kadyrbekov noted that such a revelation could have major implications, since the inter-government agreement formalising the status of the Russian base has yet to be ratified by the Kyrgyz parliament.


Marat Sultanov, an influential parliamentary faction leader, added, “If it becomes clear that Russian military personnel were involved in this incident, then the question will inevitably arise as to whether it makes sense for the foreign base to remain on our territory.”


Duishenkul Chotonov, whose parliamentary work has focused on customs policy, said this was not the first time that smuggling had been suspected at the Russian base.


“We have been receiving information that there are civilian airplanes landing at the Kant airbase carrying valuable cargos from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. We estimate that 80 per cent of these are smuggled goods,” said Chotonov.


IWPR contacted Russian military headquarters at Kant, but an officer who introduced himself as the base commander was unhelpful, warning, “We are preparing unpleasant things for the media, because our base has been smeared.


“There were no birds as such at the aerodrome,” said the officer, and hung up.


Others are pointing the finger of blame at Kyrgyz officials rather than the Russians. “The Russian soldiers have nothing to do with it, it is our law enforcement agencies who have turned a blind eye to yet another smuggling operation that was using the airbase,” said another deputy, Alymbay Sultanov.


Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the Kyrgyz presidential administration, said it was important to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions, “Until the investigation is over, it will be impossible to say for definite what happened, how it happened, and who was involved in this disgraceful act.”


The saker falcons were finally released into the wild on November 2, after a number of bureaucratic hitches.


Torsten Harder, who chairs the Kyrgyz-German association for nature protection, was indignant at the hold-up, which compounded the deteriorating condition of the falcons as a result of capture and confinement.


“There were officials who were very interested parties, and deliberately impeded the freeing of the birds. Even though we did get them free, we have no reason to be satisfied. While we were holding lengthy negotiations, two falcons died and the health of several others worsened sharply,” he said.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.


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