On December 2 2019, the 48th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates is celebrated. For that reason, today I want to tell you about one of the most important and sacred patriotic symbols for Emiratis: falconry, a sport using birds that has been elevated to the category of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
In preparing this post I had the help of Raquel Covarrubias, a Mexican native of Guadalajara, Jalisco (like me!) who, together with her husband, Leonardo Vargas (from Ciudad Guzmán, Jalisco), are in charge of a breeding project of Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcons in Abu Dhabi. Both have dedicated more than ten years to falconry, and what Raquel shared with me about this branch of biology is fascinating. So join me in learning about Raquel and Leo, as well as the most important sport in the Emirates!
What is falconry?
Falconry is the name given to the human activity of hunting food using birds of prey, such as falcons. It is an ancient activity that has its origins in Asia and the Middle East and was widely used by nomadic tribes to find food. Falcons were trained to hunt different types of animals such as foxes or hares, and in doing so they were able to feed both the members of the tribes and themselves.
This form of hunting has been disappearing as more efficient hunting methods are developed. However, falconry is still practiced as a sport and as a result of this, various conservation projects have been carried out to protect the birds and the practice worldwide. Some examples Raquel shared with me include The Mongolian Saker Project (sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club), The Houbara Fund and The Peregrine Fund.
Why is falconry so important in the UAE?
Falcons and falconry are considered so important in the Emirates that the falcon has been declared the national bird, and is the only animal that can travel inside the cabin on an Emirates airline flight – meaning Emiratis can literally travel with their birds in the seat next to them! So you can imagine what an important position they occupy in the local culture. It’s not for nothing that the falcon is stamped on almost all Emirates flight tickets and is part of the logo of Abu Dhabi ADNOC gas stations. The Emirati capital is also home to the largest falcon hospital in the world.
But why are falcons so important? This is because, in the past, hunting with the help of falcons was the main means of subsistence for the Bedouin people. In an environment as hostile as the desert, in which moving from one place to another was extremely difficult, the hunting with falcons played a vital role in the survival of the tribes for 4,000 years.
Living in the desert is arduous, but the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula have managed to adapt to these difficult conditions and, today, the Peninsula is one of the most prosperous regions on the planet. Falconry in the UAE represents the values that allowed the Bedouin to flourish, such as the sense of courage, honor and nobility, as well as the virtues of patience, willpower and companionship. This was said by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the Emirates Falconers’ Club.
To this day, many Emiratis have falcon hatcheries and practice this sport as a hobby. The practice is also a popular cultural attraction for tourists – almost all activities in the desert include a live demonstration of the sport and it’s common to see falcons ready to pose for photos with people in different tourist spots in the cities.
Raquel and Leo
The story of Raquel and Leo is interesting and inspiring.
Raquel is an architect and she first discovered falconry when she met Leo, who studied biology at the University of Guadajalara and took her with him on his expeditions in the field so that Raquel could take pictures of the falcons. His hobby became a passion, so he decided to leave architecture and become a full-time falconer.
In 2014 they went to work in the UK at a falcon farm, and when they returned to Mexico, they spent five years running their own biological control company looking after falcons. At the beginning of 2019 they moved to the Emirates to take charge of a breeding project for Gyrfalcon and Peregrine Falcons.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this story. Have you ever witnessed falconry in action in the UAE or the wider region? If so, we’d love to hear your experiences of this fascinating and beautiful tradition.
Gaby is a lawyer and mother of one from Mexico, living in Dubai. On her blog, Dunas y Palmeras, she shares her experience of living in the UAE with her family. Dunas y Palmeras is an essential resource for native Spanish speakers living or travelling in the Emirates. To hear more from Gaby, check out the blog or follow her on Instagram.
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