The flight stuff: the master falcon breeders of the UAE

We meet some of the top names in the falconry industry, ahead of next week’s International Festival of Falconry in Abu Dhabi.
Salem Al Dhabari with one of his prize-winning falcons. His birds have been bought for more than Dh100,000 each. Ravindranath K / The National
Salem Al Dhabari with one of his prize-winning falcons. His birds have been bought for more than Dh100,000 each. Ravindranath K / The National

It is a beauty pageant like no other. The preparation and preening begins weeks, and sometimes months, in advance. There are spa baths, a protein and vitamin-rich special diet, a private climate-controlled room and even, in some cases, round-the-clock security to ensure every whim is catered for.

There can be few beauty prizes that award extra points for “cankles”, but these are no ordinary beauty queens. They’re our feathered friends, the falcons that have become such a familiar sight in the Middle East.

As symbols of power, nobility and speaking of decades of Bedouin tradition, the birds’ reputation precedes them. This legacy will be celebrated when Abu Dhabi hosts the week-long International Festival of ­Falconry from December 7, the third event of its kind, drawing 725 falconers from 80 countries, including Japan, Mongolia and ­Kazakhstan.

Held by the Emirates Falconers’ Club under the patronage of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, it aims to hark back to ancient and deep-rooted traditions of hawking in the desert. Hundreds of yurts have been set up in the sand dunes for four days of camping and hunting with falcons on camel and horseback, as was done in the time before the UAE’s urban sprawl took over.

There can be few more striking examples of old versus new than the contrast between ancient and modern falconry practices.

Rather than being caught in the wild and then set free at the end of the hunting season in March, birds are now largely bred in captivity and can change hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The average bird fetches between Dh18,000 and Dh55,000, but some are sold for more than Dh500,000.

Falcon beauty contests, like the one held as part of the recent International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, are a relatively new development, but have already engendered competitive streaks in participants.

“It has not happened here in the UAE, but in competitions I have judged elsewhere, we had a couple of incidents where people were using nail polish on the feathers to make the birds’ colours whiter,” says Zayed Al Madeed, the secretary general of the Al Gannas Association in Qatar, which is dedicated to promoting traditional Arab ­hunting.

The society plans to open a museum within two years in Doha’s Katara cultural quarter in a building shaped like a giant falcon hood. Al Madeed says that with 20 categories to be fulfilled in falcon beauty contests – including the thickness of the ankle, the inward turn of the feet, the golden tint to the feathers, the length of the neck and the width of the chest – no stone is left unturned in trying to win the coveted first prize.

“Owners wash the birds with sprinklers. They feed them fried eggs to make the feathers shiny,” he says. “They give them a lot of protein and vitamin pills, and have an expert sit with the bird and talk to them every day for six hours. The birds do not understand what you are saying, but they understand the tone.

“Falcons are given a special room inside the house, which has to be noiseless, air-conditioned and very clean. If it stands tall and proud with the feet pointing inward, has a curved beak and golden-and-white feathers, people know instantly this is a valuable falcon.”

The Emirati Salem Al Dhabari’s prize-winning falcons Gabbar and Nahar took two of the four trophies for the most beautiful birds in September’s contest. The birds fetched more than Dh100,000 each when they were snapped up by sheikhs.

Al Dhabari, 35, set up the UAE-based SNC Falcons and began breeding a decade ago at farms in the United Kingdom and Spain. He regularly sends the cream of his 162-strong stock to the palace of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of ­Dubai.

“We tried to breed here, but because of the artificial environment, production dropped by 50 per cent,” he says. “English gyrs and peregrines are the best as they have retained pure ­bloodlines.

“Everyone from kings to normal little boys keep them. They are beautiful, but the operating cost is high.”

Al Dhabari’s birds are kept in specially air-conditioned rooms, where the carpet is regularly changed, and they’re monitored 24 hours a day by two watchmen. He occasionally takes them into his house and even his bedroom to settle them when they are flown over to the UAE at one month old.

Birds typically eat up to 50 grams of red meat per day and feed for each can cost up to Dh1,000 per month during hunting season, while veterinary bills and medication can send costs further rocketing.

Few people know the value of the falcon better than Nick Fox, the British director of the upcoming falconry festival. He has been breeding falcons for the royal families of the UAE and for Queen Elizabeth II for more than 25 years at his farm in ­Carmarthen, in West Wales.

As the founder of the International Wildlife Consultants (IWC) breeding farm and the Middle East Falcon Research Group, the latter dedicated to sustainable falconry and funded by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, the biologist has devoted his life to falcon husbandry.

“We are celebrating falconry, so for some, it will be an education. For others, it will be a chance to meet new people and old friends, to learn and buy things and see things happening,” he says. “You will see a variety of different cultures. The Kazakhs, Mongolians, Japanese, Chinese and South Americans all have different practices.

“Here in the Middle East, it is part of their Bedouin heritage in the desert. Every family has their camels, their horses, their falcons and their salukis. As they moved around the desert, they would hunt and the falcons would catch food for them.

“They would release their falcons back to the wild in the springtime and let them go all the way back to Asia to breed. Nowadays, almost all the birds used in Abu Dhabi are captive birds. They have sustainable supplies and things like air conditioning, so they keep them all the way through the year.

“Even 30 years ago, to keep a bird alive all through the hot summer with no air conditioning wasn’t worth the Bedouins’ while, so they let them go.”

Fox has been breeding falcons since captive breeding first started about 40 years ago. He initially began rearing falcons for the UAE royal families and the Bahraini royal family in 1987. The first batch he dispatched included peregrines, saqr and pure gyr falcons for General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, used to send his retired falcons back to the farm in Wales for breeding. Fox, who also cares for falcons gifted to the Queen and her son Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, can trace the bloodlines of his stock back to those original royal hunting falcons and holds DNA information on all his birds with full records on their parentage and ancestry. “We have more than 150 breeding chambers, producing some 300 top-quality young falcons each year,” he says. “Our breeding stock includes 100 pure gyr falcons from some of the finest bloodlines and genetics worldwide.”

A key element to the festival, which was originally held in the UK in 2007, but will be making its second appearance in Abu Dhabi, is promoting sustainability. As far back as the 1970s, worrying practices emerged among traders in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, who were accused of stealing eggs and chicks of wild falcons and trapping mature birds.

Since 1995, the UAE has been running the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme to let captured wild falcons go back to their natural habitat.

With birds costing tens of thousands of dirhams and feed and maintenance sending costs escalating, the practice of letting falcons go had become all but non-existent. When 57 falcons were released in the Kazakh mountains as part of the UAE programme in 2010, including 27 belonging to Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the royal told Wam at the time: “In the past, Bedouins trapped falcons on their migration routes over the Arab peninsula in autumn. As the life of the Bedouins has changed dramatically in a more modern world, the falconers began keeping them over the summertime to use them again for falconry in the coming year. This has resulted in a dramatic decrease of falcons in the wild.”

There are also fears that the worldwide population of the hunted houbara bustard is being depleted. Centres in Morocco and the UAE breed houbara bustards in captivity and release them into the wild to counteract the issue.

Fox has come up with his own invention to alleviate the problem – a robotic houbara bustard, dubbed the robara. Operated by a remote control and made from a tough foam material known as expanded polypropylene, or EPP, it can withstand an assault from a falcon and be used time and time again.

The biologist will showcase his invention in dawn and evening hunting trips held during the festival, in an earmarked area measuring 20 kilometres by 15km.

“For the falconers out in the desert, they will experience traditional hawking, which almost never occurs at all,” he says. “You cannot, as a tourist in the Middle East, go hawking with falcons. I have to manage sustainable hunting and that was one reason we developed the robara. It is a radio-controlled dummy that can fly and be hunted like a real one.

“The falcons can try to pull it apart and fall out of the clouds with it. It does not get wrecked and can sustain damage, so it can be used for competitions instead of real houbara, as a conservation thing.”

After the desert camping expedition and a series of workshops and seminars for seasoned falconers, the festival will relocate to Al Forsan sports club, where there will be three public days from December 11, featuring falconry displays, a parade, activities for schoolchildren and a women’s reception.

Jo Oliver, the general manager at the IWC, says: “Falcons seem regal and are absolute perfection when sitting on your fist. You build a relationship with them. When you let them fly, they have a choice to not come back, so the relationship is built on trust. That is a beautiful thing, and when they come back, they are powerful and precise.

“Falcons are not domesticated. They can be bred in captivity, but they retain a certain austerity, grace and beauty about them. When they come back, that is such a reward.”

• The International Festival of Falconry runs from December 7 to 13 inclusive. For more details, visit www.falconryfestival.com

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Published: November 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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