UAE falcon hospital a window into Emirati tradition


Abu Dhabi (AFP)

Eid al-Qobeissy's two birds perch majestically in the waiting room of Abu Dhabi's falcon hospital, awaiting a routine check-up ahead of their hunting trip to Azerbaijan.

Like other well-travelled residents of the United Arab Emirates, the falcons will make the journey with their devoted owner on a well-worn route from a country where the creature is both a national symbol and treasured tradition.

"This has been a hobby of mine since 2007," said the 26-year-old, gently stroking one of the prized birds of prey, which wear leather hoods to keep them calm and quiet.

After waiting in the pristine white-marbled reception area of the animal hospital, the falcons will undergo blood tests in order to complete paperwork for the trip.

They are among about 11,000 falcons the hospital treats annually, a number that has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

"Falcons have a very special place in the heart of the Emiratis," said the hospital's director Margit Muller.

"Here, falcons are not considered birds, they are considered children of the Bedouins because, historically, falcons were used to hunt meat, allowing the Bedouin’s family to survive in this very harsh desert life."

In 2010, UNESCO added falconry to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

- Talons and training -

The Abu Dhabi facility is the world's largest falcon hospital, frequented by falconers from across the Gulf region.

As well as check-ups and routine trimming of talons, it also conducts complicated surgery and offers a training programme for veterinary students from more than 40 countries to learn about avian medicine.

"The very complicated procedures are either broken legs or broken wings, or when a falcon has a really messy accident that results in big injuries," Muller said.

"Very long surgeries... can take up to three or four hours. That is the longest we can keep a falcon under anaesthesia."

Opportunities to take a falcon hunting are limited in the UAE, where it is only permitted in designated reserves.

That means that for many birds, the hospital is an essential stop-off before heading to popular overseas hunting destinations including Morocco, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

Emirati falconers are only legally allowed to own captive-bred birds, which must have their own passports that comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for transport.

Animals other than guide dogs are not usually allowed in the cabins of the UAE's main carriers, but for falcons exceptions are made.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad permits falcons in the cabin or as checked baggage, and Dubai's Emirates allows birds to travel alongside their owner to certain destinations in Pakistan.

"The most popular destination for falconers travelling with their falcons in the passenger cabin is Pakistan," an Emirates spokeswoman told AFP.

- Girl power -

While the hospital has its own programme and facilities to breed falcons that can be purchased, most of the birds are imported to the UAE from breeders in the Americas and Europe.

"They stay with the falconer for as long as they live," Muller said. "They will not be released because they are captive-bred falcons."

Muller added that the most sought-after and expensive falcons are females, which can carry up to five times their own body weight. They are also considered the most beautiful.

"The female is usually one third bigger than the male, and more powerful," she said, adding that captive-bred female falcons can cost upwards of 100,000 euros ($108,000).

For falconer Salem al-Mansouri from Abu Dhabi, the tradition is much more than an expensive pastime -- it is a symbol of Emirati culture.

"Falcons were used to hunt, and you can say that it was the only method for hunting for survival, especially when travelling long distances hundreds of years ago," the 30-year-old told AFP.

"We inherited it from our grandfathers and fathers, who taught us, and now we teach the next generation."