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Tale of Birds of Prey and Their Predators : Peregrine Falcons Endangered, and Some Say Highly Marketable

December 22, 1990|RICH ROBERTS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than that, Khalsa said, the Peregrine Fund has given birds to Arabs with an unofficial understanding that a handsome donation would return--tantamount, he implies, to selling birds raised by a research facility supported by public funds.

Khalsa, a former Cornell University student, was born Alan Howell Parrot in New England. At 22 he converted to the Sikh religion, changed his name and started wearing a turban.

Burnham denied Khalsa's accusation that birds went to Arabs for money but confirmed that Arabs have made contributions in amounts up to $20,000.

If there is no evidence that the Peregrine Fund is doing business with Arabs directly, Khalsa said, they are at least laundering the birds through private breeders, such as Steve Baptiste of Reno, Nev. As a result of Operation Falcon, Baptiste and former partner David Jamieson were fined $25,000 each and Baptiste was put on five years' probation, which expired a year ago, for illegal transactions.

Jamieson now works for Khalsa, who bought Jamieson's breeding farm.

The Middle East falcon market went on hold with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2. Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein is believed to be a falconer, and Saudi Arabian falconers commonly have taken their birds to Iraq to hunt houbara bustards, a falcon's favorite desert prey.

But Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show exchanges of endangered peregrines between the Peregrine Fund and Baptiste as recently as June of '89, and sales by Baptiste to Arabs.

Considering Baptiste's breeding ranch is owned by Dan Brimm of La Jolla, a heavy donor and former Peregrine Fund director, the Peregrine Fund's judgment in not keeping Baptiste at arm's length would seem questionable.

"I don't necessarily disagree," Burnham said.

In the early '80s, the Peregrine Fund's Cade tried to get permission to support his operations by selling birds to Arabs but was refused by the FWS, under a condition of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibiting their commercial use. In November of 1981, Cade and 11 others--among them Baptiste--signed a statement of intent with the North American Raptor Breeders' Assn. "to obtain necessary changes in federal regulations to permit the sale of captive raptors."

The law was changed in August of '83.

Later, the progressive recovery of the peregrine drove down the falcon market from the boom years of the late '70s and early '80s. Peregrines now can be had for as little as $400.

INSIDE TRADING

McPartlin and Khalsa claim that the Peregrine Fund has given birds to some of its own directors and others in return for favors or services.

"It's an old-boys' club," Khalsa said.

Records show that, among Peregrine Fund directors and donors, Robert Berry and Dan Konkel of Sheridan, Wyo., each received two birds from the fund since 1988 and Bond, of New Mexico, got one from Baptiste.

During Operation Falcon in '84, an unbanded--i.e., non-registered--gyrfalcon, a large arctic bird owned by Bond, was seized at Baptiste's facility near Reno and placed in McPartlin's care at Great Falls along with 105 other confiscated birds that McPartlin described as "some of the most unkempt creatures I've ever seen."

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service communication, Bond exerted pressure in Washington to get the bird back, and a few months later it was returned to Burnham at the Peregrine Fund's former facility in Colorado.

Burnham said some birds have been given to Peregrine Fund directors--primarily those who donated the use of their personal birds to help start the project, and in many cases birds too old to be useful for breeding.

Recent transactions with Baptiste, Burnham said, were "essentially at the request of the state of Nevada. The birds we sent him were anatums (a peregrine sub-species) that were released in downtown Las Vegas on a building. The ones he sent us were non-anatums. We released those back East."

The three sub-species of North American peregrines are anatums, Peale's and tundra. Only the anatums were considered endangered, but the FWS grouped all sub-species as endangered under the act's "look-alike" clause because it believed even some experts can't tell one sub-species from another.

SUPERBIRDS

Some say the Peregrine Fund is tampering too much with nature. When experts decided that anatum peregrines had been wiped out east of the Mississippi, a hybrid sub-species of Peale's and Spanish peregrines produced by artificial insemination was used for reintroduction--in effect, some scientists say, replacing apples with oranges, when more "apples" were still available in the West.

But the Peregrine Fund said the eastern and western birds were too different. Critics say they used that as an excuse to create a superior, more marketable bird from test tubes.

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