Falcons and Bustards. A Relationship which Is Heading towards the End

Falcons and Bustards. A Relationship which Is Heading towards the End

Photographs by Sulaiman Haidar

It is related that the first Arab to hunt with a falcon and train it was Al-Harith Ibn Muawiya Ibn Thawr Ibn Kinda. He stopped one day by a hunter who was setting up a net for birds, and a falcon pounced on a bird which was caught in the net and began to eat it, but his wings were soon caught in the net. Al-Harith looked at him, astonished at what he had done, and ordered that he be kept. The falcon was brought to him, placed in a house and Al-Harith put a person in charge of feeding him and teaching him to hunt. He started carrying him on his hand, and one day when he was going along the falcon saw a pigeon, so he left Al-Harith s hand, flew towards it, pounced on it and set about eating it. Then Al-Harith ordered that he be trained, tamed and used for hunting.

When he was going along one day a rabbit appeared, and the falcon flew towards it and caught it. Having seen him catch the rabbit as well as the bird, Al-Harith s admiration for him increased, and from that day the Arabs knew how to hunt with falcons. The Umayyad Caliph Hisham Ibn Abdulmalik was famous, since the time when he was a prince, for his strong love for hunting expeditions and acquiring falcons. He proved that when he became Caliph, and appointed Al-Ghatrif Ibn Qudama Al-Ghassani to a position called Chief of Hisham Ibn Abdulmalik s Hunt, on a level with the Chief of Police and Governors.

Within this historical context of how the sport of hunting with falcons originated, the Japanese book on The Essence of Writings about the Sport of Falconry Ancient and Modern is regarded as one of the oldest reference works in the world which tell about the origin of the sport of hunting with falcons. It records a prestigious hunting expedition in which the Chinese Emperor Tsu Wun Wang, who ruled from 689 to 675 BC, took part.

An Unbalanced Relationship

Whereas many of the old customs and ways of life among the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula have disappeared because economic and social conditions have improved, the sport of falconry still remains until the present time, perhaps with even more impetus than the interest which was shown in it before, particularly since the recreational and entertainment aspect is now stronger than the falconer s pressing need for food for himself and his family.

In spite of the aesthetic aspect of preserving some old inherited traditions and reviving them from time to time or whenever the appropriate time for them comes, as happens with all the peoples of other civilizations, the equilibrium of this sport is no longer what it used to be in the past, as the balance has swung in favor of the falcons against the bustards which today have become threatened with extinction. Several important factors have contributed to upsetting the equilibrium of the relationship between falcons and bustards, the chief of which is the improvement of the economic situation of Arab falconers in the gulf region, which has made it possible for him to keep his bird with him throughout the year, not just during the season. It has also become possible for him to own more than one falcon. A Gulf falconer can now travel to other countries where bustards are plentiful, particularly their original habitats. And finally, ways to care for falcons and cure them of their various illnesses have improved.

All this has not been balanced on the other side by similar development in the lives of bustards, which remain as they have been from time immemorial, obstinate, concealed, refusing to breed except in their place of origin. This makes the task of increasing this species in captivity and preserving its varieties, like other birds and animals threatened with extinction, a difficult one.

Al-Arabi magazine decided to investigate this now unbalanced relationship between falcons and bustards, between the hunters and their preferred prey, closely, and to study what brings the two together in the same terrain. It found no better place than the city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency has been devoting special care to both these birds, and has established a center for each of them which is trying to restore the balance in the disrupted relationship between falcons and bustards, and trying to save the latter from extinction.

A Hospital for Falcons

Our first day in Abu Dhabi was primarily for co-ordination. My colleague the photographer and I visited ERWDA, the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, to make the necessary arrangements to visit both the hospital for falcons and the National Bird Research Center, particularly since the distance between Abu Dhabi, where we were staying, and each of those two places requires a return journey of several hours. This required us to wake up early in the morning and go with a driver who knew the road well in the midst of the desert where both the falcons hospital and the bird center lie. Our journalistic task was facilitated by each quarter sending its own driver, which made the journey between the yellow sands a pleasure trip in the countryside.

One of the internationally and regionally prominent landmarks in the field of specialized health care for falcons although it was recently established the Abu Dhabi Falcons Hospital of the National Bird Research Center appeared in front of us. Since it was opened on 2 October 1999, it has been offering modern health care to birds in general, and bustards and falcons which are used in the sport of hunting in particular. The hospital offers its services to falconers in the UAE and Gulf Co-operation Council countries, by providing treatment for falcons and giving falconers the information they need to care for the health of their birds and preserve them. From the time we arrived at the Abu Dhabi hospital, numbers of falconers poured into the reception hall, each carrying his bird on his left hand. They included falconers from the sister state of Qatar, who told Al-Arabi that they were accustomed to visiting the hospital at least once a month to carry out some routine tests on their birds to make sure that they were healthy, particularly before the start of the hunting season.

The Falcons Hospital consists of a comprehensive modern building which includes 40 wards for treating birds, 20 isolation wards and a spacious hall for examining the birds, anaesthetizing them and carrying out some minor operations. There is a room fully equipped with medical equipment for surgical operations. The hospital contains laboratories for parasites, blood tests, microscopic biology and immunity, and an autopsy room to study illnesses which cause the death of falcons.

The chief doctor of the hospital, the Hungarian Dr. Laku Molinal, told us that samour, an inflammation of the feet, is one of the most widespread illnesses among falcons. This illness causes severe weakness in the foot or both feet. In advanced cases, the tendons and bones in the falcon s foot are seriously affected so that the bird becomes lame, and this makes him unable to hunt again. This illness is particularly prevalent in the summer months and the molting season, as well as when the falcon is inactive, particularly when the right food and enough water is not available for him.

Electronic Chip

The doctor was talking to us while moving here and there in various parts of the examination hall. We stuck close to him and the lens of the camera followed him step by step. For example, he would go to one of the members of his team in one of the corners of the hall to anaesthetize one of the falcons. On the way he would quickly answer the questions of a young falconer, and then stop to draw our attention to how small the electronic chip was that he was going to insert under the skin of one of the falcons.

The Environmental Research and Development Agency has provided numbered rings for all the birds in the UAE. They are put on the leg of each falcon to make it easy to find out about them if they are captured again or found dead, the doctor told us. In addition to the ring, or hajal as it is called in the local dialect, there is a small strip which weighs about one tenth of a gram under the skin of each falcon, which carries all the data on the falcon and its owner. While he was talking to us, the doctor went to one of the washbasins and poured a disinfectant on his hands. Then he put on his plastic gloves and said, Now we will carry out a quick surgical operation on a falcon suffering from samour. When the doctor held the feet of the deeply sedated falcon, his face did not look very happy since he found that the condition of one of that bird s feet was very advanced. But there was plenty of hope that the other one could be cured. We thought that these swellings under the falcon s feet were simply protuberances filled with liquid, but as soon as the doctor punched the swelling, light-colored dry pellets, looking like nothing but dust, came out. He removed them very gradually. Then he turned towards us and pointed with his fingers to the sole of the foot, Dead skin is very easy for bacteria to penetrate.

After the doctor had completed the cleaning operation, he sprayed antibiotics on the open wound to ensure that it was protected from inflammations. After that he sewed up the wound and then wrapped it in more than one bandage, the last of which was a blue bandage. The same operation was repeated with the other foot. With each operation, the doctor was surrounded by his assistants so that they could gain expertise and knowledge from him.

This expertise became apparent when the visit of one of the falconers changed from being a visit for a routine examination of his bird to a surgical operation. While that falcon was outside, one of his talons broke. It was connected to a vein and bled a lot from that painful break.

The doctor shifted quickly from an operation to remove samour to an operation to repair the broken talon. One must clip all the talons of falcons from time to time, he commented, so that they don t grow too long and reach a stage where they break or injure the inside of the foot.

The strange thing about this is that the first falcon, on which the samour operation was performed, recovered and stood up proudly soon after the anaesthetizing mask had been removed from his head, and began in his own way to examine the new situation that had come about to his feet, as if to say, I have been freed from a heavy anxiety. These birds go to sleep quickly and wake up even quicker.

In the midst of this atmosphere of successive surgical operations, we asked the doctor about the times when the Falcons Hospital is particularly busy. We consider the period from September to February a period of work for us, he replied. During that period, we carry out perhaps twenty surgical operations a day. It the periods when the hunting season stops, we have to confine ourselves to routine checks of falcons, and we conduct some surgical operations. Among the main illnesses that affect falcons in the UAE and that are treated in the hospital are illnesses caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses. There are also fungous infections of the respiratory system. The Falcons Hospital brings the spread of infectious diseases among falcons under control, by isolating birds which are believed to have an infectious disease and keeping them in special rooms known as quarantine wards, to protect other falcons from infection with these diseases. The most important of these, apart from samour , is radad, which is a fungous illness that affects the respiratory system of birds. These illnesses are among the most important reasons for the death of birds.


We had now passed nearly three hours with the doctor and his medical team. The time had come to make a quick visit to the quarantine wards, the operating theater and some laboratories. We had explored the latter more than once because we had continuously accompanied members of the medical team who explained to us what they were doing. Our appointment to see the operating theater was at the end, because the doctor had informed us that he would do a sonar operation on one of the falcons. And we had a quick tour in the quarantine wards.

We went my colleague the photographer, the doctor and I to the quarantine wings. In fact there was nothing inside these wards except falcons in isolation which were very quiet. Some of them were active because their condition had improved, and the others were very quiet because they were so ill. We walked down a long corridor between rooms to our right and left. Suddenly the doctor opened the door to one of those rooms, and we were afraid that the falcon behind the door would tear one of our eyes out, because we had interrupted his long seclusion. But the falcon and all the other falcons were tied to their perches, thank God. The doctor explained the nature of the quarantine to us: Each one of these rooms has its own different ventilation system according to the condition of each bird in it. These falcons are not confined inside their rooms the whole time. Near the end of the corridor is a large room in which some falcons are let loose, to help them be cured quickly. Then he added, The main problem we are suffering with these falcons is that after some time they become used to us, and forget their original owners. If they recover and their owners come to collect them, they turn against them angrily and don t accept the idea of going with strangers.

On the way back from the quarantine building, the doctor stopped and pointed at one of the buildings. Here is the Falconers Club, he said. The purpose of this club is to spread awareness and raise the standard of falconry in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf region with the aim of preserving it as an important heritage in the region, as well as propagating the ethics of the sport of falconry and providing information about the characteristics and habits of falcons, the phases of their lives, their different varieties, original habitats and migrations, and passing on the knowledge inherited from ancestors to coming generations in order to ensure continuity of this sport in a proper manner. This will prevent falcons and bustards being in danger of extinction.

In the operating theater a sonar operation was awaiting us. All preparations had been made before the doctor arrived to begin the operation at once. When we entered the room we found an anaesthetized falcon lying on its back. This time the doctor did not put on his plastic gloves, I do not know why. With the help of his colleague he checked that all was correct with the camera attached to the head of the wire that he would place inside the entrails of the sleeping bird. Beside his head was a television screen, which displayed whatever the lens of the camera picked up, until the doctor found what he was looking for. He sprayed a liquid onto the opening through which he would penetrate to inside the falcon. The operation began. The whole time the eyes of the doctor and his assistant never left the television screen which began to reveal the unknown inside, until it reached the place of the expected disorder, an illness affecting the respiratory system of the bird.

The operation ended, and with it ended our visit, but the doctor and his medical team continued their works, which stops only for a few hours.

The Bird Research Center

After we had completed our tour of the Falcons Hospital, we had an appointment at an early hour the following day with the National Bird Research Center, which is currently specializing in ways to protect the bustard from extinction. While I was eating breakfast hurriedly with my colleague the photographer, he was checking his lens and films and I was making sure of the tape recorder, cassette tapes and blank sheets of paper, a dark-skinned woman approached us, dressed in clothes like those I see in some programs on the Discovery television channel. From her accent in English we knew at once that she was Indian. We hurriedly finished our breakfast. It seemed that she recognized us easily, perhaps from the press equipment which we were carrying. In the jeep which transported us, we learnt that she also was a doctor in biology.

As soon as we arrived at our destination inside the center, the group split up and each person went off separately.

We were met by the Co-ordinator of Administrative affairs, a young man from the Emirates Muhammad Salih Al-Baidani, who accompanied us to the main reception hall and television display. Before we began talking about anything, Al-Baidani took us to a square, earth-covered open space, after he had drawn back the curtain from the glass window overlooking that square which is surrounded on all four sides by the buildings of the center. Look at the male bustard here, he said. He is now going through the phase of mating. We see him, but he doesn t see us.

And how does this happen? we asked.

Wait a little, he answered.

Suddenly a girl who works in the center entered. She was dressed in blue clothing and was carrying a dummy bustard. Al-Baidani told us that it was a dummy of a female. The male did not run away from the girl whom he was used to seeing every day in the same clothes. She sat on the ground. The male came slowly towards the dummy, then he sat on top of it and settled down a little. The girl took out a round-shaped plastic box and placed it between the male and the dummy female. At a precise moment the girl removed the dummy and went back to where she had come from. She took with her the box, which she closed tightly. The male went off to perform the rituals of the mating season. We have just obtained sperm from the male bustard, Al-Baidani said. It will be frozen and used later to fertilize females.

After that unexpected display, we sat down with Al-Baidani to learn about the tasks which the National Bird Research Center of the Environment and Wildlife Research and Development Association in the UAE is undertaking. This is regarded as one of the important centers in the region because of the distinctive role it is playing in protecting and breeding birds, and particularly in protecting bustards and falcons. In 1998 the center managed to breed bustards in captivity, under controlled temperature and lighting conditions. The center at Suwaihan was equipped to be the main incubation and care of bustard chicks, while the zoo at Al-Ain is the location where the other species of birds are kept, and where they live in spacious areas and under almost natural conditions.

Below Fear

Fear is the main obstacle in the process of breeding bustards, as it prevents the secretion of some hormones which help to form spermatozoa in male bustards.

In order to ensure that he is in harmony with the new environment in which he is, Al-Baidani explained, the male bustard must be brought as either a chick or an egg, and fed by specific people who wear clothes that don t change, until the male reaches the mating phase without worrying who is around him.

In 1999 the center managed to develop a technique of freezing bustard sperm in liquid nitrogen to a temperature of 70 degrees within a few seconds. It can be preserved thus for long periods, and when it is needed, it is restored to its normal temperature to fertilize a female bustard. The year 2000 is regarded as one of the best years for the program of breeding in captivity, since that year there was great success in raising bustards, in addition to Asian bustards, crested bustards and white-bellied bustards. This makes the center one of the most successful international centers for raising bustards in captivity.

Al-Baidani warned of the dangers which threaten bustards from several angles, and which might end in the demise of falconry, since bustards are known to be the traditional prey for falcons. With the development of the possibilities for keeping falcons the whole year round, the introduction of cars and modern machinery into the sport of falconry and the spread of lower breeds of falcons which are sold cheaply compared with their prices in the past, the number of falconers and fans of this sport has increased. All this is at the expense of bustards, whose situation has not improved like that of falcons.

The Republic of Kazakhstan, Al-Baidani went on, is regarded as one of the most important breeding areas for bustards in the world. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Central Asian republics like Kazakhstan, this has led to the place being opened up to a large number of falconers from the Gulf region to go to the bustard breeding grounds there to hunt them. Kazakhstan, which lost a lot of hard currency because these falconers used to go to areas close by to which bustards migrate, like Pakistan and Iran, was very easygoing on this matter, in the hope of attracting these falconers to it. Bustards multiply well in a country like China, and if it is asked to establish nature reserves for them, the Chinese reply to us: We preserve them, then they migrate to Pakistan so that the latter gains plenty of money from Arab falconers. In such a situation, bustards will in future be eliminated from their habitats.


The National Bird Research Center is linked by co-operation agreements with a number of institutions and research groups. It is linked by a co-operation agreement with the Academy of Sciences in the Republic of Kazakhstan, a working group in Russia, Environmental Protection in Mongolia and the International Falcons Foundation in Pakistan, with the aim of co-operation in the field of conducting surveys of falcons in the wild. It has also concluded an agreement with the Agricultural Research Institute in Siberia on researches on the shahin variety of falcon. The center is also carrying out a long-term program to study the numbers of bustard and their distribution in Central Asia, in order to evaluate the health situation of varieties of Asian bustard. This is done through a network of 11 stations extending from the Caspian Sea to east of Lake Balkash in Kazakhstan.

Al-Baidani spoke of the difficulties facing plans and programs drawn up to protect the bustard. The main problem we are facing, he said, is the lack of local laws to deter people from hunting bustards or trading in them live, particularly in the countries where they breed. For example, many European countries don t ban the shooting of birds, but they are keen to allow surplus numbers of them to be hunted, so that one species does not destroy another. This means that states which are keen on rare birds ought to define the seasons for hunting, not ban it altogether. By the way, keeping bustards in confinement in order to train falcons and trading in them is much more dangerous than hunting itself, because falcons can be trained to hunt by means of other species of animals which are not threatened with extinction.

Al-Baidani said that there are three main ways which help to fix the percentages that show whether the numbers of bustards are increasing or diminishing. These are monitoring the movements of bustards throughout the year, especially in winter and spring, the rate of successful nesting under natural conditions, and the return of bustards on whose backs have been fixed monitoring devices linked to artificial satellites. Since 1988, he added, we have been aware of all the numbers of bustard in Kazakhstan, from east to west and north to south.

In fact 1988 was the beginning of co-operation between the National Bird Research Center and the Kazakh Research Association (formerly the Institute to Combat Plague) to monitor the numbers of Asian bustards migrating in Kazakhstan. A working group carried out a survey over a distance of 20,000 kilometres in both autumn and spring in areas which are suited to the existence of bustards.

On the Verge of Extinction

Through the collection of data on the death rates of bustards and the annual rates of their production of chicks in the wild, and the analysis of these data by computer, it became clear that there is an imbalance in the environmental balance, and that there is no equilibrium between the numbers hunted and the numbers of chicks produced in the wild. This warns us that the number of bustards, according to Muhammad Salih Al-Baidani, will diminish by 94% in the next fifty years.

Arab falconers can help to reduce the pressures from which wild bustards are suffering, by using other species which can multiply in captivity to train their falcons. Large numbers of wild bustards which are caught by illegal traps (specifically in both Pakistan and Iran) are subsequently sold illegally in the Arabian Peninsula for the purposes of training falcons to hunt. As a result of this, more than 6,000 or 7,000 bustards are brought annually to the United Arab Emirates alone for training purposes.

These birds are a great loss to the numbers in the wild, and consequently are not available for falconers to hunt. Accordingly, the National Bird Research Center attaches great importance to programs to breed in captivity, in order to obtain other varieties of bustard to use as substitutes for training falcons. After this explanation which Al-Baidani had given us, we were joined by the Director of the National Bird Research Center, the Frenchman Olivier Cambreau, to accompany us on a quick tour of the cages in which the bustards are held, to view them from a distance, a considerable distance in fact, for several reasons. The most important of these was that the bustards to which we went were females, which to a great extent prefer not to be seen. For strangers to look at them during this period (the mating season), particularly with flash cameras, makes them extremely frightened. This has a negative effect on the breeding program which the center is carrying out at present.

After the end of the hunting season, Arab falconers have long been accustomed to release their falcons into the wild from which they came. This is to achieve two main purposes: to get rid of the burden of looking after them, which they cannot afford, and to allow the falcons to breed naturally. But with the improvement in falconers material circumstances these days, it has become possible to keep more than one falcon, to equip special houses for each falcon, and to keep them throughout the summer. This situation has inevitably led to less observance of the old Arab custom of releasing falcons into the wild every year after the end of the hunting season.

The program of UAE President Sheikh Zayid Ibn Sultan Al Nahayan to release falcons, which has been organized by the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency in co-operation with the Falcons Hospital, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Falcons Foundation in Pakistan every year since 1995, is regarded as an outstanding contribution to conserve and protect wildlife.

The Chitral area in northern Pakistan near the Pakistani-Afghan border on the Hindu Kush mountain range where falcons were released recently is on one of the migration routes for falcons northwards during the spring towards their breeding grounds in Central Asia. In addition the prey which they eat is plentiful there, as there are large numbers of birds, both resident and migrating northwards. This is the ideal prey for shahin falcons. This area is also noted for its plentiful water and for having the right temperature for falcons at that time of year. All the falcons which are selected to be released undergo strict veterinary measures, in accordance with measures observed internationally in programs for the release of birds. They are placed in isolation under strict observation for one month in the Falcons Hospital in Khazna and the Agency s Abu Dhabi Falcons Hospital for the purpose of examining them to make sure that they are completely free of bacterial or fungous infections. The falcons which are proven to be completely free of infections and viruses are selected for the final phase of the program to release them. after the preparations have been completed, the falcons are conveyed by a transport aircraft of the Emirates Air Force to the Chitral area in Pakistan.

In order to improve their fitness, the falcons which had been prepared for release had to undergo daily exercises which lasted several weeks, during which they were provided with comprehensive nutrition to increase their weight. This could increase their chances of survival during the critical period of two weeks after their release, when the falcons are readapting themselves to nature.

It is worth mentioning here that Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency conducts studies on falcons, including shahin falcons, in co-operation with research institutes concerned with wildlife and its conservation in Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. The aim of these studies is to collect basic information on falcons and determine their habitats, and their geographical and biological distribution, as well as locating their breeding rounds and studying the dangers which threaten their existence. The results of these studies are compared with information collected by following up and monitoring the movements of falcons released by the Agency each year. This helps to determine the routes of migration of falcons and the most important areas for this program. The Agency is now developing programs of co-operation with the authorities who deal with wildlife in the countries concerned, to engage in joint action to activate a strategy that the Agency has drawn up to protect these migrating birds.

It should be mentioned that the first release of falcons by His Highness Sheikh Zayid was in April 1995, when 107 falcons were released from the Kharan area in Baluchistan province in the west of Pakistan. In the middle of April 1996, 65 falcons were released in the Gilgit area. The third release was in 1997 at Lake Isikol in the Republic of Kyrgizstan, and the fourth release took place in the same area. A total of 147 falcons were released in those two years. The fifth release took place in 1999 in the Gilgit area of northern Pakistan, and 79 falcons were released. In the year 2000, 111 falcons were released near the border between China and Pakistan, and 75 falcons were released in the Chitral area last year, in 2001. The total number of falcons released over these recent years thus comes to 686.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


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