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The legacy of falconry lives on in the Arab world

Reuters
Today's falconry helps raise awareness about nature preservation
  • The ancient sport of falconry remains big business in the Gulf
  • Events train younger generations and help preserve the revered birds

Falcons and the sport of falconry remain not only a thriving niche business but also a proud legacy representing the Gulf’s culture. 

The third Saudi Falcons Club auction, which concludes on November 15, has already sold six falcons for SR 645,000 ($172,000).

The auction in Malham, north of Riyadh, is run in conjunction with the Al-Melwah falcon race. 

Club spokesman Walid Al-Taweel said: “The auction and race helps raise awareness of the importance of preserving falcons, train younger generations in the sport and enable falconers to practice their hobby.”

The price of falcons is determined by their weight, colour and characteristics, such as shoulders and legs, he adds. Qirnas refer to falcons over the age of one year old and the younger peregrines come with a bigger price tag.

A falcon costs between $4,000 and $10,000 on average, but there are exceptions where birds have sold for $250,000.

Tourists shortly visiting Qatar for the Fifa World Cup can head to Souq Waqif, a marketplace in the heart of the capital of Doha, to find everything related to falcons, including accessory stores (bird hoods, handler gloves), bird stores, and places to take a selfie with the birds.

It is also home to the falcon hospital, which provides premium healthcare services, and includes a small museum to learn about the birds.

Falcons were also back at the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex) in early October with a contest for the “most beautiful captive-bred falcon” in the categories of saker, gyr and gyr peregrine.

Majid Al Mansouri, chairman of the Adihex organising committee and secretary general of the Emirates Falconers Club, said: “Abu Dhabi is a leader in safeguarding cultural heritage, conserving wildlife and protecting the environment.”

Person, Human, Buzzard
A young Egyptian and his bird. Picture: Creative Commons

A brief history

Falconry, the ancient method of catching wild quarry with a trained bird of prey, has been transformed from hunting for sustenance to a multimillion-dollar sport industry. 

While its exact origins of are unknown, some of the earliest evidence of falconry points to the Arab world.

In 1832, British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruins of Dur-Sharrukin, an Assyrian capital built between 720 and 700 BC. He discovered a relief showing a man with a falcon on his wrist.

There is also evidence that the Babylonians, located in present-day Iraq, had game reserves and trained falcons to hunt. 

As Arab influence spread, falconry made its way to the Islamic Empire in Central Asia and North Africa.

Thousands of years ago, falconry served as a means of survival. Bedouins in the deserts trapped peregrines and trained the birds to hunt as an efficient way of providing food for themselves and their families. 

When falconry spread to the West, it was used less as a way of procuring food and more as a sport for the upper classes. 

In 1228 Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor, hunted in the desert with Malik al-Kamil, the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, for three months during a lull in the Sixth Crusade.

With the rise of guns and other modern weapons, the prevalence of falcons as the favoured hunting tool began to decrease but it remained as a sport – and an intrinsic part of the Arab world.

Falcons appear on corporate logos (Etihad), banknotes, and they are the national emblem of the UAE. 

In 2002 Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, son and heir of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, introduced the sport of falcon racing to the Gulf.

The ensuing racing events were the crown prince’s attempt to keep Emiratis connected to their heritage, which also turned into a business enterprise.

The falcon races quickly caught on, and led to jobs for falcon breeders, trainers, and coaches. 

In 2007, Sheikh Hamdan created the Fazza Championships, a two-week competition with $8 million in prizes. He created separate racing categories for professional falconers and the public, with distinct heats for juvenile and adult birds, and males and females.

In 2014 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, created The President Cup, held each January at the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club, and offering a prize of $11 million. 

Since falconry is big business, it is no surprise that there is a black market. There are those in the industry who believe that wild falcons may perform better than falcons bred in captivity. 

Falcons are protected by international wildlife laws, as they were at one point close to going extinct. 

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