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UAE: Age-Old Arab Sport Faces Bleak Future

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jul 9 2004 (IPS) - The picture of an Arab warrior dressed in flowing white robes, seated astride his stallion with a falcon seated on his outstretched arm is an awe-inspiring one. Arabs and falcons have an age-old relationship and it is difficult to imagine one without the other.

The picture of an Arab warrior dressed in flowing white robes, seated astride his stallion with a falcon seated on his outstretched arm is an awe-inspiring one. Arabs and falcons have an age-old relationship and it is difficult to imagine one without the other.

But today, the traditional Arab sport of falconry faces a bleak future due to over-hunting, poaching and illegal trade in falcons and in its natural and favourite prey, the houbara bustard.

In a recent editorial of the Emirates Falconers’ Club’s ‘Al Saker’ magazine, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister and minister of state for foreign affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who is also the club chairman, issued a warning.

He said that in spite of the organisation’s efforts, illegal trade in falcons and houbara bustards remains a very disturbing matter and the situation could further deteriorate if no efforts are made to control it.

”Studies show that at the current rate of decline in the houbara population, we are going to lose 50 percent of birds between 2006 and 2007, and practising falconry could become impossible or extremely difficult by 2010,” wrote Sheikh Hamdan in the editorial.

The Middle East is one of the few places where falconry is still a significant sporting activity. There is evidence of the sport being practised here from the eighth century.

In the UAE, it has been a hobby for nationals over the centuries and they have managed to preserve the traditional aspects of the sport and pass it on to the younger generations as well.

”Two kinds of falcon species are used in the sport – ‘al hurr’ or ‘saqr’ (‘falco cherrug’), and ‘shaheen’ (‘falco peregrinus’),” Amer Tayabi, a wildlife enthusiast who works for a Dubai-based research center, told IPS.

”Both of these species are almost similar in size, but the ‘al hurr’ is more heavily built. More often than not, the female of the species is preferred for the sport as it is bigger in build,” explained Amer.

Mohammed Al Kindi, a Dubai national has been an avid falconer for the last 20 years.

”I have been a falconer for ages and love the excitement of the sport. I have also been involved in breeding them and hunting with them since I was 10 years old. My father was also a falconer,” he told IPS.

”But now it is increasingly difficult and more expensive to practice this sport,” he lamented.

Mohammed said previously they had to trap wild falcons during their autumn migration and train them for the hunting season beginning in late November each year.

Sometimes, he said, they had to travel to Pakistan and Iran to purchase the falcons.

”Now falcons can be easily bought although the price can be quite steep – with a falcon costing anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 U.S. dollars,” added the falconer.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries import at least 6,400 hunted falcons every year and most of them are females as they are preferred in falconry because of their bigger size.

Statistics showed that 4,000 birds are exported to Saudi Arabia while they were estimated at 1,000 in Qatar and between 500 to 1,000 each to the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The main falcon suppliers are Pakistan, Iran, China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Libya.

”Falconry is a sport that requires finesse, subtlety and skill acquired through long hours of training. The falconer must train a bird of prey to fly free, hunt and return the prey to captivity,” said Mohammad.

He added: ”A falcon can pursue its prey from a great distance and with great speed and accuracy.”

Today, however, falcons have become endangered because of excessive hunting and poaching.

”For many years there has been concern about illegal and unsustainable trade in falcons for falconry,” said Jonathan Barzoa of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) secretariat in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi.

The UAE has joined the CITES programme so as to organise the trade in creatures on the verge of extinction and ensure better protection for them.

Barzoa stressed that there was a need to address a number of problems in controlling international trade in falcons for falconry.

”The main problem is that there is a continuing large trade, including illegal ones, from a number of states resulting in a decrease in some populations of certain species used for falconry,” he told a conference.

There are also large numbers of falconers who take their birds across international borders to practise their sport and they would like to find ways to facilitate these movements within a legal framework.

Some of the states into whose territory falconers enter in order to hunt are concerned that the controls on the trade are not adequate and are worried about the potential effects on some of the species being sought after.

The UAE is pushing ahead with projects to protect the dwindling falcon and houbara population within an overall programme to rebuild its dwindling wildlife. The plan is to produce falcons locally and breed more than 10,000 houbara bustards in captivity.

An intensive houbara breeding scheme has been launched at the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency’s (ERWDA) National Avian Research Centre and production will be in full swing within three years.

”Houbaras are the favoured target species for Arabian falconry but wild houbara populations are crashing as a result of over- hunting and poaching. The goal of this project is to breed houbaras in captivity as a contribution to the global strategy for houbara conservation,” wildlife enthusiast Amer explained.

 
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UAE: Age-Old Arab Sport Faces Bleak Future

Meena Janardhan

DUBAI, Jul 9 2004 (IPS) - The picture of an Arab warrior dressed in flowing white robes, seated astride his stallion with a falcon seated on his outstretched arm is an awe-inspiring one. Arabs and falcons have an age-old relationship and it is difficult to imagine one without the other.
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