Conservation projects for birds of all feathers at the third Intl’ Falconry Festival

ABU DHABI: The third International Falconry Festival is coming to an end today, Saturday, after a week of majestic displays of falconry techniques, oral traditions and the sharing of myths, stories, legends and historical facts about this noble, thousands of years old heritage.

Organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi and the Emirates Falconers Club, the festival’s first edition was, in fact, in 1976, initiated by Sheikh Zayed to raise awareness and save wild falcons from extinction.

The Festival, and Falconry Conference were revived in 2011, after falconry being recognised by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage, the result of a 14 nations effort, led by UAE.

“A lot of changes happened since 1976, on the conservation front,” said Majid Ali Al Mansouri, Executive Director of the Emirates Falconers Club.

“First of all, we have the houbara breeding programme, which started in the 1960s, and after many years it gave us the first 90 houbara chicks. Today, the International Fund for Houbara Conservation is releasing 46,000 Asian and African houbara every year back into the wild in UAE, Morocco and Kazakhstan,” he added.

Just as certain species of falcons, houbara too – a favourite prey for falcons – is an endangered species, largely due to urban development.

Another big impact in saving wild falcons was made by the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, established by Shaikh Zayed in the 90s and nowadays run by the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, part of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi.

All these organisations with a conservation mission were back at the Falconry Festival this year.

At its tent on the Festival grounds at Al Forsan Sport Resort in Abu Dhabi, the International Fund for Houbara Conservation’s representatives were explaining visitors why is it important not to allow houbara to disappear from its natural habitats.

“For any conservation programme to succeed, its efforts need to be in tune with culture, not at odds with it. Events such as the International Falconry Festival allow us to show visitors that the preservation of falconry and the protection of the houbara are two sides of the same coin; one cannot thrive without the other. It is only through communicating this message that we have managed to raise the houbara from an endangered species,” said Mohammed Saleh Al Baidani, Director General of International Fund for Houbara Conservation.

Now the world’s largest conservation programme, the Fund has bred more than 206,000 houbara since 1996 and released more than 140,000 into the wild since 1998.

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital has double reasons for celebrating this year – its 15th anniversary since it was established and the 20th anniversary of its Falcon Release Programme. Both occasions were celebrated at the Falconry Festival with ample displays of the Hospital’s main development phases.

“The Falcon Release Programme started in 1995, when 107 falcons were returned to the wild. In the past 20 years, 1600 falcons were released,” said Margit Muller, director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.

The programme takes in wild falcons, either donated by falconers or illegally smuggled into the country, health check and rehabilitate them before releasing them back into the wild, mostly in Kazakhstan or Pakistan, once every spring.

Some of the falcons are tagged with satellite tracking devices to monitor their progress.

“We had a Peregrine falcon that flu a record 14,245 kilometres in seven months,” said Muller.

“They have two migration routes, one that ends up in Iran, Afghanistan region, and another here. So far, none of our released falcons has returned to the Arab Gulf, but hopefully one day!” According to Muller, the Peregrine species, once endangered, is now stable, but the Saker falcons are still at risk at disappearing from the wild. Loss of habitat, over hunting, electrocution from electricity polls and even poison used to kill mice and rats on agricultural fields (wild Saker feeds on rodents and the poison kills them too) are some of the main reasons.

“For thousands of years, the Saker was and remains today the Arabs’ favourite falcon. It is a very strong, powerful bird. When it goes hunting it doesn’t stop until it catches its prey, and it can hunt animals as big as a gazelle. The Saker is actually the falcon featured on the UAE national emblem,” pointed out Muller.

Protecting the wildlife was, in fact, the message of not just conservation organisations, but every one of the 800 participating falconers. The fourth International Falconry Festival will return to Abu Dhabi in three years’ time.