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Falcons in Arabia

Arabian Falconry

Hunting with Falcons in Qatar and The Gulf

High above the desert a Peregrine falcon flies alone, keen eyes fixed on its prey below. Then it plunges towards its prey, a large brown bird the size of a heron. The chase ensues, but the larger bird cannot outrun the fastest creature on earth. The falcon reaches a speed of over 200 mph before hitting its prey.

As the two plunge to the ground, a plume of dust rises from the desert floor as the falconer in his jeep rushes towards the impact site. The falcon is soon separated from its prey, which is dispatched along with words “Bismilaah Al Rahman Al Rahim” - the name of God.

The History of Falconry

A Qatari handles a falcon in Souq Waqif.For thousand of years, falconry has been associated with nobility and wealth. While we don't know just when falconry originated, it is thought to have been practised in Iran in 3000 BCE. It is also referred to in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Summerian epic poem and one of the earliest known works of fiction, originating in 2000 BCE. Throughout history, images of kings and sultans can be seen with birds on their arms as they ride out to hunt.

However, in Arabia the bird was also used as a practical hunting tool by the nomadic Bedouin. In the harsh desert environment, the keen eyed falcon could see for long distances, and was an excellent way of augmenting a meagre diet with meat.

The use of falconry was mentioned in the Koran:

"They ask you as to what is allowed to them. Say: The good things are allowed to you, and what you have taught the beasts and birds of prey, training them to hunt-- you teach them of what Allah has taught you-- so eat of that which they catch for you and mention the name of Allah over it; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah; surely Allah is swift in reckoning."

Arab falconry techniques were introduced into Europe by Arabs such as Fakhr ad-Din al-Farisi, a Persian Sufi and advisor to the Sultan Malik Al Kamal (nephew of Salah Ah Din), who taught the art of falconry to Frederick II during a court visit to Sicily. Frederick became a keen falconer, employing a large staff to look after his birds and writing the comprehensive De Arte Venandi Cum Vibus (The Art of Falconry.)

Unlike much of the rest of the world, falconry in the Arab states has remained popular until the present day.

Big Business

Take a first class seat in a Qatar airways plane in the falconry season, and your immediate companion may not be a person but a proud bird of prey. Falconry in the Gulf is big business, and during the hunting season the birds of prey are treated with great care. Not surprisingly, as the best birds can cost thousands of dollars.

Falconers with money travel abroad to hunt, sometimes with a retinue of hundreds of servants. Their wealth ensures their hunting continues - in Pakistan, where Pakistanis themselves are forbidden to kill the Houbara, the government sells dozens of hunting permits every year, despite the protest of environmental groups such as the Houbara Foundation.

The Falcons

A tourist gets to handle to handle a falcon.We first saw falcons in the Qatar bird souq in the wholesale market. Like the rest of the animals there, these birds were in poor shape - small unhappy creatures that were a far cry from the proud birds we had imagined. These birds had been trapped abroad, probably in Pakistan, the owner told us - probably illegally, we thought. We asked us how much they cost and were told we could purchase one for just 300 riyals (80 USD).

The birds we have seen in Souq Waqif have been of a different ilk: tall, proud and obviously well looked after, they perch on small wooden stands on sand either outside or, as it gets hotter, in the air-conditioned confines of the shop.

These falcons have traditionally been trapped as they crossed their Arabian peninsula on their migration for the Northern hemisphere at the start of autumn. Even now, books in Qatar can be found with detailed diagrams and advice on the art of trapping these birds.

However, many of these birds are trapped abroad in countries like Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, and then brought - often illegally - into the Gulf states. Serious falconers look after their birds, and at the end of the season, birds that are used for falconry are often released back into the wild - but many birds die during transportation, and others which are unsold are often killed and stuffed.

Some Gulf countries like Qatar - the first country to accept the use of falcon passports - and the UAE have been trying to regulate and protect the bird. In addition to requiring the use of identification, countries like the UAE have also encouraged the breeding of captive birds to try and protect the wild population. Many falconers, however, still consider wild birds to be better hunters.

Types of Falcon used for hunting

There are a number of birds used for hunting in the Gulf. Historically, the most popular birds have been the Peregrine Falcon and the Saker.

The Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) is one of the birds used in the hunt, and has the distinction of being the fastest bird on earth. When flying horizontally the bird can reach 110 kph, but according to Extreme Science the bird's top speed, when diving, can reach 440 km/h - that's over 270 miles per hour. The speed of the bird means that it often kills its prey on impact. However, as is is not large enough to hunt the Houbara the Peregrine falcon is no longer as popular as it used to be.

For many years the Peregrine Falcon was considered endangered, although more due to the use of the pesticide DDT rather than falconry. Happily, in the 1990's the bird was removed from the endangered list. The Saker, however, is another matter.

Listen to the sounds of Peregrine Falcons:

The Saker

The Saker (Falco Cherrug) is a much larger bird than the Peregrine Falcon, and has broad blunt wings with a span of up to 105-129cm. The Saker is unusual in that it does not create its own nests, but uses that of others birds. The Saker hunts differently from the Peregrine, and chasing prey horizontally, and can bring down gazelle as well as birds. The Saker is categorised as endangered, with the pressures of falconry compounded by a loss of habitat.

Listen to the sound of the Saker Falcon:

Nowadays hybrd birds are also popular for hunting. The use of hybrid birds has, however, been banned in Qatar - a fact criticised by some suppliers as encouraging the trade of illegal wild birds.

The Prey

The favourite prey of the falconer is the Houbara Bustard. Unfortunately for the Arab falconers, due to heavy hunting these are increasingly rare in Qatar and the other Gulf states. Although the importance of conservation is now understood by falconers, especially in the UAE where there are breeding programmes for the Hubara, serious falconers have to go further afield to find rich hunting grounds, often travelling to Pakistan or Iran.

The houbara is a popular prey for several reasons. Despite its size, it is a fast flying bird, and the battle between the bird of prey and the Houbara is considered good sport. The meat is also said to be delicious - and, last of all, it is also considered to be an aphrodisiac.

The Hunt

Originally, after the falcon was released, the falconers followed by horse or even on foot. These were replaced by cars, modified with extra springs to take the pressures of the desert. Now the jeeps or land cruisers are used - cars that can easily take the punishment of driving at speed across the desert. These two can be modified, with elevated swivelling seats to help the hunters spot the prey. Modern falconers may also be accompanied by computers and radar.

The Kill

The falconer or the falcon master must be present at the kill, when the bird brings the prey down. This is both to make sure the falcon is not damaged in a tussle when bringing down a larger bird, and also to make sure that it is killed in the proper Islamic way - uttering the name of God.

Hunting Gazelle with Falcons

The movie below shows the ruler of Dubai hunting with his falcon.

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