Hanging out with Sheikh Hamdan’s falcons

An exclusive look inside the Crown Prince of Dubai's falcon farm, as we dive into the UAE pastime.

Alain Ernoult August 7, 2016

Although the origins of falconry can be traced to the highlands of Central Asia about 3,500 years ago, with falconry only becoming known in the Arab world around 600AD, 90 per cent of falconers are now located in the Middle East.

It has become part of national tradition and local families in the region have developed some of the most advanced and well-equipped falconry centres in the world.

One of these is the ruling family of Dubai, and His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, graciously allowed French falconer Jacques-Olivier Travers access to his farm for an exclusive look at his precious birds.

“In terms of the practice routine of falconry in Dubai, it is still very much alive and thriving,” Travers says. “Even if it hasn’t reached the levels of Saudi Arabia or Qatar, there are many falconers in Dubai.” 

However, it has become limited to a sporting enterprise. Travers explained:Hunting in its natural state has almost disappeared. There is no game to hunt and falconers compete among themselves using criteria such as speed, hawks and endurance. This new form of falconry is very popular and the number of participants is increasing every year. 

“The competitions are expected to grow through bonuses that are awarded to the winners with the first prize of a major contest being $112,000 plus a Bentley. Hunting remains reserved for the richest people, who travel to Morocco or Pakistan to practice.”

Travers is impressed with the levels of professionalism in the UAE and with the Crown Prince’s investment in the sport. HH Sheikh Hamdan’s farm has about 900 hawks, managed by a team of 50 falconers, housed in several specially constructed, air-conditioned buildings. There is also a training centre and a private clinic run by four veterinarians and it’s all operational, 24/7. The season starts in December and ends in March, while its cool enough to work the hawks.

The birds are trained twice a day using some very innovative methods, including the use of model aircraft capable of flying at 90kmh to build the birds’ strength and stamina. Everything is designed to be efficient with modified cars used to transport the birds, training grounds built specifically for them, a veterinary clinic on site and of course everything is air-conditioned. 

The birds we saw were exceptional for their lineage and their physical characteristics. Only the finest falcons are purchased, with a minimum price of US$23,000 ranging up to several hundred thousand dollars for the rarest," said Travers.

“The birds are treated like elite athletes, with a properly catered diet, care and personalised workouts. A repair service covering things like broken feathers is also incorporated into the firm and its manager is a true artist.”

With the high temperatures in the Gulf, the season here is limited. Some birds are rested during the summer, but others travel to compete and breed. Travers said: “Some of the falconers spend summer in Europe where the Crown Prince owns some farms, plus the hawks can reproduce in the milder temperatures. Once the young falcons are able to fly, they are trained on site with the best selected and sent back to Dubai.” 

For Travers, being able to spend time with the Crown Prince’s birds and trainers has been a fantastic experience. He said:For someone as passionate about falconry as me, it’s been a little bit like being in paradise. We shared a lot about our training techniques and the use of cameras on birds that greatly interests them and that I master well.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see that at the heart of luxury and money, the legacy of their grandparents remains one of their great traditions.”

Images by Alain Ernoult. This article was originally published by EDGAR’s sister magazine, Altitudes Arabia.