Arab states unify UN falconry bid

Abu Dhabi-led initiative to register the sport of falconry as a form of intangible cultural heritage boosted by move.

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ABU DHABI // An initiative to register falconry with the UN as a form of cultural heritage is closer to taking flight with Abu Dhabi gaining the support of four other Arab states. The participating countries agreed to submit their bids in a single file to Unesco, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on Aug 31. "Our leadership has found it is best for us to submit one file involving all interested Arab countries to register falconry with Unesco," said Dr Sami al Masri, deputy head of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), which is spearheading the initiative. The announcement came as five Arab countries, including the UAE, prepared to finalise their bids during all-day workshops on Wednesday at the Shangri-La Hotel. The other participating countries were Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Syria. About 65 nations practise training birds of prey for hunting game. "This is the first such initiative from the region, and it will be the largest joint submission file" to the Unesco heritage panel, said Dr Awadh Saleh, international organisations affairs expert at Adach. The Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage aims to preserve traditional craftsmanship, ancient languages, social practices, rituals and festivities and traditional performing arts. Signatories pledge to look after a particular aspect of heritage, whether through laws, grants or favourable treatment of practitioners, experts said. Before the presentation to the UN, the International Festival of Falconry will give a chance for the UAE to show its falconry heritage to the rest of the world. The event, to be held on July 11-12 at Englefield Estate near Reading, in southern England, is organised by the UK Hawk Board, and the Emirates Falconers' Club is a major sponsor. Each of the 50 nations taking part will have its own camp, showcasing unique facets of falconry and hunting. The UAE's will feature displays of camels, Arabian horses, and the traditional hunting hounds, salukis. The club is looking for volunteers to explain the country's heritage and traditions to an expected 10,000 to 20,000 visitors. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoun, the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, will be there with other high-level delegates from the UAE. About 500 schoolchildren from Abu Dhabi are also scheduled to visit the exhibits and learn about the differences between Arabian and European falconry. The International Fund for Houbara Conservation, set up by the Abu Dhabi Government to protect the prized houbara bustard through a captive breeding programme, will be another focus of the festival. People in the UAE have been hunting with falcons for generations. With the arrival of oil wealth in the 1960s an 1970s, hunting evolved from a necessity to a hobby. But the rapid rise in population and new wealth meant hunting started to harm the environment. Previously, hunters would trap wild falcons in autumn and release them in spring. But the availability of air conditioning made it possible to keep the birds in captivity. Conservationists also have criticised wealthy Gulf falconers for fuelling the illegal trade in endangered species. The saker, peregrine and gyr falcons are the three species most popular with hunters. According to the Red List of Endangered Species, drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the saker's future is in jeopardy, with about 4,000 birds trapped each year in Saudi Arabia, and 500 to 1,000 in each of the other Gulf states. In the UAE there are virtually no wild falcons left, although countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are still using wild birds, many of them trapped illegally. Some governments, such as that of Mongolia, have instituted a legal quota. In 1995 Sheikh Zayed, the founding president of the UAE, started a falcon-release programme in which birds belonging to members of the royal family and those confiscated from smugglers were released in Pakistan. Between 80 and 100 birds are freed every year through the programme.