Last ‘satellite’ falcon returns

2013-01-14 00:00

AS Newcastle’s last remaining “satellite falcon” returned for the summer, volunteers were preparing to count how many of the Amur falcons have survived the new and bizarre demand for fresh or smoked Amur meat in Nagaland in north-east India.

The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) — formerly known as the Eastern Red-footed Falcon — breeds in south-eastern Siberia and northern China and spends the summer in southern Africa after flying up to 3 100 km non-stop to cross the Indian Ocean. They annually fly some 22 000 km and eat insects caught in the air, such as termites and dragonflies.

Newcastle’s “satellite falcon” was one of 10 Amur falcons equipped with five-gram satellite transmitters, but it is now the only surviving one after it managed to evade the nets set for these birds when they landed to fatten up at a new hydro-electric dam in Nagaland, India, in December.

Conservation India in December estimates that during the peak migration, 12 000 to 14 000 Amur falcons are sold as fresh or smoked meat every day. The organisation estimated that 120 000 to 140 000 of the tiny falcons were eaten in Nagaland in December.

An Amur falcon typically weighs only between 100 and 180 grams, with a wingspan of between 58 cm and 70 cm.

André Botha of the Endangered Wildlife Trust said worldwide outrage from conservationists last year had led to the Indian authorities banning the slaughter of falcons. Interest groups are meanwhile worried that the decrease in falcon numbers could lead to a dramatic increase in the numbers of termites, with catastrophic consequences for farmers and all wooden constructions.

In a paper entitled “How to make 2,5 billion termites disappear?” first published in Ornithological Observations, Henk Bouwman and Hanneline du Plessis, of the University of North-West in Potchefstroom, with Craig Symes, of the University of Witwatersrand, discuss the implications termites have on ecosystems in general and agriculture in particular. They state: “Termites are landscape engineers” and point out that a single Amur falcon can eat 250 termites when the insects take to the air after a storm. They conclude that if 130 000 Amur falcons did not reach Africa, almost three tons of termites (2 893 kg) would not be eaten, but go on to breed.

“A reduction in avian predation on termites would presumably increase the number of termite colonies and therefore increase pressure on agriculture, rangelands, and wooden constructions,” their report states.

To monitor which routes the falcons follow between southern Africa and China, Professor Bernd-Ulrich Meyburg, of Germany, and two South Africans, Dr Zephne Bernitz and Rina Pretorius, equipped 10 falcons with satellite transmitters in 2010.

Botha said the satellite tracks showed the falcons flew non-stop from Somalia over the Indian Ocean to the north of India. It is the longest known migratory route for any bird of prey.

Last week, Meyburg confirmed that Newcastle’s little falcon had completed her third successful migration to the large Newcastle roost. At night, the Amur falcons gather in large groups in the same trees to sleep. Volunteers for the bird of prey programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust will on January 25 count how many falcons roost in each of 50 trees.

The count forms part of a worldwide project to determine the impact of the recent trend to slaughter the falcons in Nagaland.

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