On the hunt with falconers in Abu Dhabi

We join falconers in the Abu Dhabi desert on a hunting trip as part of the fourth International Festival of Falconry

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Hundreds of falconers from around the world gathered in the Abu Dhabi desert for fourth International Festival of Falconry.

An estimated 700 falconers, scientists and researchers from 90 countries met at a camp in Al Ramsah, their base for state-sanction hunts at dawn and dusk and workshops that ranged from rapture nutrition to Arab lure swinging.

Not everyone was impressed by Abu Dhabi’s urbanised desert. In one majlis, a Kazakh falconer expressed his disappointed while sharing luqaimat dumplings with a Mongolian and an Uzbek falconer. “The sheikhs come to Kazakhstan to hunt wild houbara. Here, this is only for kids," one quipped.

The festival a celebration of all things falcon but it was not all fun and games.

On the sidelines, a series of seminars drafted a global strategy for falconry for the next 40 years.

Electrocution, habitat loss and illegal trade are the most pressing challenges facing falcon conservation, said Adrian Lombard, the president of the International Association for Falconry (IAF).

"There are new issues we have to confront," Lombard told The National.

“At the moment one of the big problems we see going forward is the electrocution of birds of prey. We’re also worried about the environment and loss of habitat.”

Tens of thousands of birds are electrocuted every year on power lines, particularly in Central Asia where the IFA estimates that 4,000 saker falcons (Falco cherrug) are killed every year. The saker falcon is a favourite species used by Gulf falconers and classified as endangered by the International Union Conservation.

This week’s meeting reinforced the importance of ending these preventable these deaths, said Lombard.

The illegal trade in wild raptors, which are often worth tens of thousands of dollars, is another critical issue, he said.

“It’s a multifaced problem. I think there are issues with corruption and with a lack of adequate policing of areas where the traffic and trading is occurring. We believe if it was done openly and managed correctly by the governments where it occurs this problem is something that could be contained and corrected. It’s a problem right across central Asia.”

Falconers themselves must bear responsibility when they source their falcons.

“All falconers really would like to have the right to continue practicing their art of falconry. They also have the wish that their children would continue as well so we must be sure that whatever we do is sustainable and something that can be continued into the future.”

On third day at the desert camp, participants gathered for a communal majlis. By falconers for falconers, the talk indirectly addressed another implied threat to falconry: reputation.

In the Emirates, falconry is taken as a given. At the festival, there was much talk about falconry legislation around the world. While Lombard stressed the IFA’s role in conservation, calling it an “animal welfare organisation”, he was critical of animal rights groups.

“Many organisations call themselves animal welfare organisations and they’re not,” he told the audience. “They’re animal rights organisations. Animal rights and animal welfare are not the same thing. They are very, very different.”

“Animal rights people believe that animals have the same rights as people, that keeping a dog is slavery and they don’t accept that hunting is right and you can never change that…”

“We can persuade people who are not animal rights fans that actually that’s an unreasonable belief. That actually, what we do is reasonable.”

An Australian falconer noted that falconry should never be called ‘sport’.

“This can honestly hurt us,” he said to the crowd. “People’s perception of sport is very different to art and culture. They see it as a competition and in any competition there’s got to be a victor and they point the finger of us as being the sole victor, deliberately being the victor that wants to kill something. And of course none of us go out there to try and kill something. Let’s start here and now get rid of the word. It’s not a sport. It’s our culture and our art, and our right.”

Youth were encouraged to step forward and speak about their love of falconry and their right to practice.

“If one day I die, I want to be a raptor and contribute to the balance of the ecosystem,” said a Chinese falconer to the audience.

“Or become a falcon and help a friendly friend pass falconry to the next generation.”

On Thursday, the festival moved to Khalifa Park in Abu Dhabi, where traditional falconry will be open to the public this weekend.

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