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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

European falconers recall charm of Sheikh Zayed: 'If there was a room, he filled it'

How a conversation between an Austrian falconer and the UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed led to the first International Festival of Falconry

Karl Pock attends the fourth International Festival of Falconry. He is one of the original 27 falconers attended the first festival in 1976 on the invitation of Sheikh Zayed. Reem Mohammed / The National
Karl Pock attends the fourth International Festival of Falconry. He is one of the original 27 falconers attended the first festival in 1976 on the invitation of Sheikh Zayed. Reem Mohammed / The National

In 1974, the late Austrian falconer Hurst Niester was approached with an unusual request. A construction company wanted to present the Ruler of the United Arab Emirates with a falcon and they needed a falconer with his experience to transport it.

Mr Niester agreed, and so began a friendship with UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed. Sheikh Zayed and Mr Niester shared a love of falconry but it was a difficult time for the sport. Falcon populations were quickly dropping around the world from urbanisation, pesticide use and poaching.

Sheikh Zayed approached Mr Niester with a solution, recalls Hurst’s widow, Ute.

“He said, ‘Where in this world are falconers? I want to know them. I want to learn from them and they could maybe learn from us. Is it possible to bring them to the desert’?”

This conversation led to the first International Festival of Falconry in 1976, where falconers from around the world came to Abu Dhabi to set up a framework for falconry conservation. Ms Niester, an avid falconer and breeder from Cologne, Germany, was one of 16 attendees from the original conference who returned to Abu Dhabi this week for the fourth edition of the festival. They are accompanied by their friends and relatives.

The original festival had a lasting impact on falconry.

“It was the first where the falconers were together from different countries to discuss the subject on this level,” said Frits Kleyn, the organiser of this year’s reunion and a board member of the International Association for Falconry Conservation of Birds of Prey. “They also discussed the conservation element, which was always done on a smaller local scale. Here it became more international.”

A three day conference was held at the Hilton Hotel in Abu Dhabi. Ms Niester and her husband remained in Abu Dhabi, hosting a three week falconry exhibition.

Amongst the 1976 guests was Richard Fyfe, a biologist from Saskatchewan, Canada whose research on pesticides helped bring the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction in North America.

He had been invited for his research into the toxic affect of DDT on birds fertility and eggshells, which had decimated the American peregrine falcon population from an estimated 3,875 nesting pairs in the 1940s to about 324 nesting pairs. It had led him to start a captive breeding programme, capturing the attention of the sheikh.

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Fyfe passed away in June at age 85 from pneumonia. His son, Ken and daughter-in-law Michelle, came in his place.

Also present was Thomas Cade, a professor of ornithology at Cornell University in the United States and the founding chair and director of The Peregrine Fund.

“My personal reason for coming to the conference was to persuade the locals, the Emiratis, to get involved in breeding,” said Cade. “They were having problems getting sakers and other falcons for their falconry. The ones that they took, of course, they were taking from a declining population which is not very good for conservation.”

These three-day conference laid the groundwork for sustainable practices, like captive breeding programmes.

“It took time,” said Cade. “It was not a popular idea at all and some of the old conservatives, not just the Arabs but a lot of Europeans who were old time falconers, just couldn’t see that as ever working and so they politicked against it to some extent.”

Cade travelled with his PhD student, Joseph Platt. The pair had already been in contact with King Hamad ibn Isa of Bahrain in 1975, who was then the Crown Prince. They set up the Bahrain Falcon Center in 1978. Within a few years, the first falcon hospital was established in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Falcon Hospital was set up in 1983.

Others had not returned to the Gulf until this week. On Wednesday, they were taken on a desert hunting trip where five farmed houbaras bustard, each valued at thousands of dirhams, were released in their honour.

However, the Emirati guides who took them out were so concerned about the comfort of elderly falconers that they did not venture far into the dunes but remained on a flat, allowed the houbara only a hundred metres to run before falcons were released. Some houbara, tame as chickens, did not want to fly but walk slowly in front of the cars upon their release, prolonging their life by their oblivion.

One houbara was so tame that it was content to sit on the lap of a driver as it was being driven to the dunes for release, unaware of the hooden falcon perched on the console inches away.

It was not a style of hunting that would have been familiar to Sheikh Zayed but the intent of the hospitality was familiar. It was the same spirit of generosity they remembered from decades ago.

Karl Pock, an Austrian falconer who met Sheikh Zayed through Hurst Niester and attended the ’76 conference, carried his iPad2 in his suitcase throughout the trip, occasionally pulling it out to show others photos on his Instagram account: Sheikh Zayed reading a book with a flashlight, Dubai sheikhs in top hats at the horse races; a portrait of the young Karl Pock himself in Emirati dress.

Mr Pock recalled a visit by Sheikh Zayed to his house in Austria in 1974. Walking through the Austrian forest, Mr Pock asked Sheikh Zayed for the time. The sheikh removed his wristwatch and handed it to the Austrian, saying “now you’ll always have the time”.

“Sheikh Zayed had charm,” said Ms Niester. “If he was in a room, he filled it.”