Should you wish to ingratiate yourself with a Middle Eastern potentate, give him a falcon, the rarer the better. That's what Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada did last year. While on a tour of Saudi Arabia, Trudeau presented King Khalid with a gyrfalcon from a breeding station in Alberta.
Now the arctic Inuit of Canada's Northwest Territories are preparing to take advantage of this fervor for falcons. Under an unpublicized agreement signed recently by the Canadian federal and territorial governments, the Inuit are exclusively empowered to harvest gyrfalcons for sale to Arab handlers for whatever the traffic in falcons will bear, which in the Middle East is a lot. Reportedly a gyrfalcon can bring $10,000 to the Inuit and $50,000 or more to the handlers who sell them abroad.
The gyr is a magnificent creature with a four-foot wingspan. It was for eight years listed as an endangered species, a status that entitled it to federal protection, but last March it was downgraded to "threatened."
Fact is, no one knows whether the gyrfalcon is endangered, threatened or thriving because no one knows how many there are. "The only numbers we have are sightings by wildlife service officers monitoring peregrines [an endangered species of falcon]," said Ron Raf, a biologist from the Northwest Territories.
Under the agreement the Inuit were allowed to take 50 birds (they had requested 400) in 1981, but the limit was an arbitrary one, set by officials without knowledge of the condition of the species. Fortunately for the falcons, the agreement was signed late enough in the fall that by the time the hunters were ready, the chicks had fledged (left the nest), and none was captured.
One critic of the agreement, Ken Brynaert, executive vice-president of the Canadian Wildlife Federation, believes it was a political offering to the Inuit in exchange for other considerations, such as gas and oil rights on lands in Inuit territory. "This is not a cultural or traditional thing for the native people," Brynaert told David Miller of The Toronto Star. "It's a straight entrepreneurial operation. The Inuit are in it for the big bucks...."
Though the agreement is still intact, the Inuit's 1981 permit has now expired, and before a 1982 harvest can begin, a new permit must be issued. The Northwest Territories Wildlife Service has hired a falcon biologist who will attempt to inventory the gyrfalcons, and with luck his count will be complete before the new limit is set. If a census reveals that the gyrfalcon is in danger of extinction and human predation is a threat to the species, then an aroused public will be required to undo the work of the politicians before irreversible damage is done.
Perpetuating a custom as old as politics and publicity, the mayors of New York and San Francisco had a bet on the outcome of Sunday's playoff game between the Giants and the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Their stakes, however, were a sign of the financial times. Ed Koch of New York came up with two medallions that once hung on his city's crumbling West Side highway. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco commandeered a surplus cable car bell.
OMAR THE MAGNIFICENT