Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

First glimpse inside Sheikh Hamdan’s 'mind-blowing' private falconry centre in Dubai

Exclusive: The aircraft hangar-sized facility, which boasts a falcon hospital and control room, plays a key part in the Crown Prince's impressive competition wins

As you walk into Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed’s private falcon centre, just 15 kilometres inland from Jumeirah Beach, visitors' attention is immediately drawn to the dozens of trophies on display.

The success of the Dubai Crown Prince’s falcon breeding and training programme, it soon becomes clear, is not just a matter of chance.

From a 'mission control' centre where birds are trained to hunt in giant hangar to the on-site hospital where vets are busy giving endoscopies to sedated raptors, this is an aviary on steroids.

“My mind is blown, basically, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sarah Fangman, superintendent of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and part of a group of US wildlife experts given an exclusive facility with The National.

As one of the members of a US delegation of wildlife and nature professionals currently visiting the UAE, Ms Fangman has a special focus on what the Emiratis and Americans can learn from each other in the field of coral restoration.

“Some humans would love to get the care these falcons get,” she said. “They [Emiratis] clearly have such passion and commitment to these animals. It’s fascinating.”

The Al Aseefa falcon centre has been operating for nearly two decades and has undergone constant restorations and improvements. Staff say it is now the number one centre of its kind.

From one end to another, the huge hangar where the birds are trained are half a kilometre in length. Areas are separated by vast partitions, which can be opened at the touch of an iPad. But the doors are not the only thing controlled remotely.

“Everything is here, in my control,” said Saif Alfalasi, manager of Al Aseefa falcon centre, while brandishing his tablet.

Conditions at the centre can be varied to mimic a Russian winter, a milder European climate and the UAE’s warmer temperatures, during the training process.

My mind is blown, basically, I’ve never seen anything like it

Sarah Fangman, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

“All my work I do from the outside, on cameras. We have everything we need to help them [the falcons] reach a very good condition,” said Mr Alfalasi.

The centre looks like something out of Nasa mission control. Giant screens display the seven rooms where birds rest, while eight other monitors beam back images from the hangar in which they train.

Mr Alfalasi’s iPad also controls the lights, allowing him to replicate sunrise and sunset, as well as bird and storm sounds that can be also played into the hangar.

He can even change humidity levels and make it rain. High up perches for the falcons spring out of the walls at the touch of a button.

Similarly, a touch of a screen instructs a projector to beam "shadows" replicating the falcons' prey on to the sandy floor. For a few weeks, Mr Alfalasi explains, the birds will attempt to ‘catch’ the shadows, “like children playing a game”.

A vast hanger where the birds are trained is just part of the sprawling desert facility. Reem Mohammed / The National
A vast hanger where the birds are trained is just part of the sprawling desert facility. Reem Mohammed / The National

Later on, he added, they will ignore them, having learned to recognise shade. The process helps ensure the birds do not become distracted during races.

On Wednesday, when The National toured the centre, there were no falcons present as it is currently breeding season.

But in June, hundreds will arrive for their "hack" – a training method designed to help the young reach their potential by teaching them to hunt independently.

Progress of individual birds is closely monitored. “I see everything and we write notes every day,” Mr Alfalasi said.

At the end of the hack, the best birds will be kept for racing and breeding, while others will be given away to other enthusiasts.

The whole programme is overseen by wildlife enthusiast Sheikh Hamdan, who, Mr Alfalasi reveals, is a hands-on boss.

“Sheikh Hamdan is very busy but he loves to take time for horses, camels and falcons,” he said.

“He follows what is going on very closely and gives us good ideas to make our place number one.

“This is his passion and it is very important to him. He doesn’t just build it and leave it, he comes, sees what he likes and thinks of more things to improve it.”

The reception to the centre's on-site hospital looks like an upmarket doctors’ surgery, with several pictures of Sheikh Hamdan along with some of his falcons hanging on the walls.

Each bird has its own set of medical notes. In an operating theatre, two are given endoscopies, carried out if there are signs that something with a falcon is amiss and blood tests, analysed in the facility’s own lab, fail to diagnose the problem.

A vet gives the group of Americans a live commentary on the insides of a anaesthetised falcon suffering from an infection.

There is also an X-ray centre, single rooms for recovering birds and on-site breeding facilities for houbara, which the falcons hunt.

“It’s wonderful to see the commitment that they’ve made to these birds and the very high level of care that the birds receive,” Christopher Dold, chief zoological officer at SeaWorld and another member of the delegation, said.

“Culturally, it’s really interesting to see the different level of animal care from the US. Certainly, we have falconry [in the US], but not to this level and not with the same historic prestige.

"The most extraordinary thing is the level of care and attention these birds get.”

Updated: February 13, 2020 09:27 PM

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