I woke up at dawn to follow a top falconer training the fastest creatures on earth to compete for $7 million in prizes, and found the Middle East's oldest pastime grisly and thrilling

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderHamad Al Falasi is one of the top falcon trainers in the world.
  • Though falconry has existed in cultures throughout history, it has a central role in the United Arab Emirates and Middle Eastern culture, where nomads have long used falcons to hunt for food.
  • In the UAE falconers train their falcons, which can cost up to $US60,000 a bird, to race at hundreds of miles an hour in the President’s Cup, a national competition in which the fastest falcons can win up to $US7 million in prizes.
  • For some, the pricey birds have become a status symbol akin to fancy European sports cars.
  • I spent a day with the top trainers at the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club, one of the UAE’s premier falconry organisations, to see what the pastime is like now. It is enthralling, fascinating, and grisly to watch.

Every winter morning Hamad Al-Falasi and his team rise before dawn and drive dusty 4x4s into the harsh Arabian desert. Before the sun ever crests the tawny dunes, the men have sipped their coffee and carried a small army of muscular birds to perches in the sand.

There are dozens of different falcons – nut-brown and speckled white Peregrines, silver Gyrfalcons dappled with black and bluish-grey Sakers, and any number of hybrid species bred for temperament or speed.

The trainers, dressed in long white kanduras, carry the birds one at a time to Al-Falasi. He removes a leather hood from each and, one by one, the raptors accelerate faster than a Formula One race car and follow a diving flight path to a trainer standing a few hundred yards off, holding a bundle of feathers fixed to rope.

Al Falasi is the head trainer of the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club,a government-owned organisation started in 2013 to promote falconry in the United Arab Emirates. Though falconry has existed in numerous cultures throughout history, it has always been central to Middle Eastern culture.

The Bedouin Arabs, the nomads who historically lived in the region, have captured migrating falcons for thousands of years and trained them to hunt desert game for food, typically large birds called houbara bustards, rabbits, doves, and even gazelles. Falconry was a crucial tool for Bedouins to survive in the desolate desert.

Emiratis abandoned nomadic life over the past century in favour of modernity in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and falconry fell out of practice for all but the wealthiest. But as the country and its people have grown wealthier in recent decades, falconry has returned as a popular hobby, though with one major change. Racing has taken the place of hunting in the UAE, after the Crown Prince of Dubai introduced the sport in the early 2000s and hunting was banned to protect endangered species.

Al-Falasi and his team train the club’s falcons for a shot at the President’s Cup, a competition overseen by the UAE’s rulers and featuring $US7.35 million and 73 cars in prizes for the top falconers.

I spent a day with the trainers to see what goes into the fast-growing sport. Warning: It’s not for those with weak stomachs.

Hamad Al-Falasi has been training falcons for as long as he can remember. Falconry is typically passed down from father to son, Al-Falasi told me as we drove to a training site deep in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. Emiratis often teach their children how to care for the birds as a means of instilling discipline and knowledge of the desert.

“I started training falcons when I was 12 years old. I started because my father did it,” Saeed Al-Hamli, the administrative manager of the ADFC, told me as he stroked a recently purchased white gyr-peregrine hybrid in his office.

Falconers will typically go out once at dawn and once in the evening during hunting and racing season to train their birds.

Al Falasi only has one falcon, but he trains dozens of them for members too busy to train every day. Over half of the club’s 66 members are sheikhs, or royalty, but the ADFC has been working to expand its membership among the general public with open introductory clinics and classes for school children.

Some falcons are trained for hunting, while others are trained for racing. It’s a different regimen for each to build up stamina, energy, and muscle mass. Racing falcons are trained like a sprinter, while hunting falcons are trained more like a long-distance runner.

Hunting was banned by UAE’s rulers after falconers nearly hunted houbara bustards, a turkey-sized desert bird prized for its meat, to endangerment. The wealthiest falconers still go on hunting expeditions. The best places to hunt are Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, and Iraq, which Al-Hamli calls “a paradise for falconry.” But due to conflict, most falconers stick to Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia these days.

“There isn’t much hunting allowed anymore, but we want falconry to remain part of our culture, so that’s why we encourage the racing,” Al-Hamli said. The trainers start the morning with strong Arabic coffee, tea, and dates, a favourite among Emiratis.

Racing and the ADFC were both started to introduce more Emiratis and expats to falconry. Each season, which runs from October to March, there are nine races, culminating in the President’s Cup, a competition attended by members of the royal family in which over $US7 million and 73 cars are given out in prizes for the top trainers. Here, trainer Hamid Shaheen Al-Hammadi, who owns more than 70 falcons, carries out a bird for training.

Falcon ownership has skyrocketed in the UAE and, while falconry has traditionally been male-dominated, Emirati Ayesha Al-Mansoori and South African falconer Angelique Engels started a women’s section at ADFC in 2016. Last year, Melodiya Nyela Fampo Magno, a Filipino woman who works as a veterinarian for the royal family, won around $US2,700 for placing highly in the President’s Cup.

Screenshot/Abu Dhabi Falconers Club

Source: Massey University

Increased demand in the Middle East has had a negative effect. Falcon traders in Pakistan, Russia, and elsewhere are capturing migrating falcons to sell to wealthy Arab falconers who believe they are superior to captive-bred birds. The Saker falcon, a favourite among Arabs, is endangered due to habitat degradation and a booming smuggling trade. Other falcon species are also declining in the wild.

National Geographic,

Slowly but surely, the UAE and the ADFC are trying to promote falconry and reform it. Falconer Sheikh Butti bin Maktoum bin Juma al Maktoum and falcon breeder Howard Waller pioneered high-quality captive breeding in the late 1990s. The training ground is strewn with feathers from the birds furiously beating their wings.

The UAE has banned wild falcons and all falcons must have documents to certify they aren’t wild. Only bred falcons can compete in the yearly races, which the government and the ADFC hope will discourage Emiratis from trying to smuggle in wild birds. Bred birds are no less finicky.

The traditional Bedouin training method is called the “telwah,” or a pigeon carcass tied to a rope. From a young age, the falcons are trained to associate the telwah with food, as meat is added to the lure or a trainer feeds after catching it. The trainer stands a few hundred feet from the launching platform and the bird jets to the telwah, thinking it is chasing a pigeon.

Because Al-Falasi is primarily training the birds for racing, keeping track of speed and timing is important. It is Abdullah Al-Hammadi’s job to record times and prepare reports for the members on the progress of their falcons’ training. Members pay $US1,100 a season for ADFC membership and another $US500 a month to have the club house, train, feed, and provide medical services to the falcons.

Before the trainers release a falcon, they fit it with a small transmitter that allows them to track it. Regardless of whether they were captured wild or bred in captivity, falcons will often follow their instincts and fly into the distance. When that happens, they follow beeps on a receiver to figure out where the bird has gone.

As the falcon reaches the telwah, the trainer flicks the lure away from the bird, causing it to shift direction and circle overhead for another pass. This continues several times until the trainer gives in. When the falcon finally catches the lure, another worker rushes to grab the falcon and reward it with some meat.

Falcons have eyesight eight times as sharp as a human, allowing them to see prey far in the distance. But after their training with the telwah is over, the trainer must quickly slip a hood over its eyes. The birds will beat relentlessly while they can see, but as soon as their vision goes black, they calm down.

Source: Peregrine Brown Falcons

The decorative leather hoods are known as burqas. The birds are so used to visual stimuli that when their eyes are covered, they assume they must be safe. While I sat in Al-Hamli’s office, he periodically took his new falcon’s hood on and off to gently acclimate the bird to having humans around. “In the beginning, you are like a mother to it. You must teach it everything,” Al-Hamli said.

Source: The Modern Apprentice

Generally, it takes a new falcon about ten days to bond with its owner, a process called imprinting. Eventually, it will view its owner as its parent. After another two weeks, you can train the bird. Most falconers prefer to purchase new falcons in August so they have time to bond and train before racing season.

Typically, a gyrfalcon can reach 90 miles per hour flying in a straight path horizontally and 130 mph while diving. A peregrine falcon can reach up to 68 mph horizontally and up to 242 mph while diving. It’s the fastest animal on earth.

Source: AnimalArk

There are trade-offs for every species. Though gyrs are not as fast as peregrines, they are much smarter. Saker and gyrs are much larger than peregrines, allowing them to take down larger prey, but more susceptible to diseases like bumblefoot, an often fatal foot infection.

Source: ScienceDirect,National Geographic

These days, many falconers prefer crossbreeds like a Gyr-Peregrine, which makes for a “large, strong hunting bird that is easier to handle and more resistant to disease,” a falcon breeder told National Geographic.

Source: National Geographic

The price of falcons has skyrocketed in recent years as racing has become more popular, Al-Hamli said. While the price of a gyr-peregrine used to top out at $US10,000, it can now go for double that. Pure Gyrs can cost more than $US60,000.

For most Emirati falconers, falconry is a family hobby. Al-Hamli and the other trainers waxed poetic about spending long evenings in the desert during the cooler winter months, sitting around a bonfire with friends or family, trading stories, and training their falcons.

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderHamid Shaheen Al-Hammadi and Abdullah Al-Hammadi pose for a portrait. The two are distantly related.

Learning how to be a falconer takes a long time. The first step is learning how to care for the falcons properly, which Al-Hamli said usually takes a year. Then, one must learn how to properly train the falcon with the telwah.

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderAbdullah Al-Hammadi pours coffee for the other trainers.

The price depends on the size, weight, shape, and colour of the falcon. Colour doesn’t affect the bird’s speed or aggressiveness, but white is the priciest and most popular colour. Altaf Mohammed owns over 50 falcons and has competed in the President’s Cup for several years.

The price of the bird is also affected by when you purchase it. Molting season — when falcons shed their feathers — typically runs from March to September, depending on the bird. Birds that take longer are usually less healthy and fetch a lower price. Al-Hamli got his new bird for a cheaper price because he bought it in November, but he will be unable to race it this season.

Trainers are deathly serious about their falcons. “Let me tell you something,” one trainer told me, with a smile. “If my falcon and my son both got sick at the same time, I would have my driver take my son to the hospital, and I would drive my falcon to the animal hospital myself. That’s how important that bird is to me.”

The newest training method is to use a radio-controlled motorised aeroplane painted to look like a houbara. After training each bird with the telwah, they switch to the aeroplane for a second round of training.

The aeroplane is directed by a remote control which gives Al-Falasi precision when directing the falcon’s flight path. One particular training method has the plane go very high, forcing the falcon to fly upward and thus build their chest and back muscles.

The aeroplane training method has made falconry more accessible, according to Al-Hamli. Prior, you either had to use the telwah or practice with an air balloon, which was expensive, unwieldy, and difficult to operate. The plane is quickly becoming trainers’ primary method.

A pigeon carcass is attached to the back of the plane to lure the bird. A parachute is also attached, which helps prevent the falcon from flying off with the meat. Every day, the trainer will increase the distance and speed of the aeroplane to build the bird’s stamina.

It’s a pretty gruesome affair up close. There are pigeon carcasses strewn around the training area being used to train the falcons.

The President’s Cup, and the other eight competitions each season, test falconers and their birds in multiple training disciplines, including the telwah, the aeroplane, and the balloon. Each tests a different attribute of the bird and skill of the trainer.

The trainers have to give the plane a head start or the bird will catch the food too quickly. These are the fastest creatures on earth, after all.

A massive behind-the-scenes operation cares for the falcons. On the day I visited, there more than half a dozen workers, marked by their golden robes, arranging the training and taking care of the birds. While all different nationalities work at the club, many of the workers are Pakistani, as Pakistan has a long history with falconry.

About halfway through the morning training, I observed the workers setting up an assembly line to feed and tend to the falcons. Whereas falconers in the past used to own one or two falcons, many club members today own four, five, or even 50 birds. The club will only train five falcons per member a day, but that’s still a ton of falcons.

And they require a ton of food. Typically, falcons are kept on a diet of pigeon, quail, or chicken. But the caretakers need to be cautious with how much they feed them. Too much and the bird will be sluggish and not motivated to fly. Too little and it could get weak or try to fly away.

One of the workers was methodically cutting through live pigeon after live pigeon, chopping the heads off, plucking the feathers, and then cutting them up into little morsels that he tossed into a bag for the other workers to feed to the falcons.

Dinner is served. It is not uncommon for cities like Dubai or Abu Dhabi to hire falconers to let loose their birds in the city to cull the pigeon population, according to Al-Hamli. There’s only one problem. If the falcon happens to cross the territory of an eagle, the eagle will likely kill it.

Though the UAE has succeeded in increasing falconry’s popularity, for many, the bird has become a high-priced status symbol not just among Emiratis, but wealthy expats as well. With its training regimens and strict competitions, the ADFC is trying to modernise falconry while respecting its heritage.

“People think training falcons is a game. But in the UAE, the falcon is a revered creature. It’s in the roots of this country’s culture and history,” said ADFC’s spokesman, who asked not to be named. At times, the ADFC has had to disqualify competitors over their birds’ names. It is typical to give a falcon a respectful name like Hashim, which means destroyer of evil. Some new trainers have tried to give their birds humorous names. It didn’t fly.

Source:The National

“Some people want the falcon as a status symbol these days. You’ll see Emiratis walk into the mall with their falcons just to show it off. I don’t like that,” said Al-Hamli.

As the training winds down, the workers prepare the birds to go back into captivity in the club. With rounds of aeroplane and telwah training done, they spray the birds’ wings with water to cool them down.

The final step of the training is another use of the telwah, but at shorter and shorter distances. Even with the sun high in the sky and the birds hours into training, they were still zipping ahead at what seemed like full speed.

When I visited the ADFC in late November, it was the lull before the storm. In just a few days, the competitions would start, culminating with the President’s Cup on January 16 where 276 falconers and over 2,000 falcons will compete. I could feel the anticipation in the air.

Source: Visit Abu Dhabi

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.