Article excerpt

ONCE, they were a spectacular sight over the Arabian desert.

The Houbara bustard was a common visitor around the Bedouin camps - with males showing off a striking black and white ruff.

But now flocks are dangerously low - and a team of Scottish scientists has been drafted in to help.

The University of Abertay, Dundee, has 200 breeding females producing chicks for release into the wild.

`This is probably the largest programme of its kind,' said Dr Graham Wishart, who is leading the Abertay team.

Last century, bustards were as numerous as grouse in Scotland, and were prize game for the Arabian nobility, but are now on the endangered list. The size of a wild turkey, bustards survive in one of the world's most hostile environments.

The team and their Moroccan colleagues hope to introduce the first birds in March.

Research student Claire Lindsay will be travelling with Bedouin tribes to document habitat.

Her research will be used to ensure the release of the birds bred in captivity is successful.

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Dr Wishart and his team are also developing systems for collecting and storing the sperm needed for the programme, including futuristic cryopreservation for the long term storage of the sperm.

`Artificial insemination of wild birds has never been carried out on this scale before,' added Dr Wishart.

'Although the mechanics of the process in farmed poultry are well understood, this programme is revealing vital information about the reproductive biology and fertility of the bustard - knowledge which will be very valuable in future conservation programmes for other species.

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The skies over the Arabian desert were once blackened by the thousands of birds that used to fly away at the first sign of a sand storm.

And the spectacular displays of the male Houbara bustard were a common sight among the Bedouin tribes.

Dozens of buff coloured male bustards arched their heads back to display a well hidden striking black and white ruff and females would select a mating partner.

But now numbers of the bird are so depleted that a team of Scottish scientists have been drafted in to give them a helping hand.

Thousands of miles away from their native land in a lab at the University of Abertay Dundee, a flock of 200 breeding female birds have been raised to produce chicks to release into the wild. …