x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

At last, the falcons are ready to fly

The international festival starting in Al Ain today is the result of some extremely complex planning.

Dr Fox, the director of the festival, and his teams in the UAE and UK have been working on the project for the two years since the last event, in Britain. Courtesy Tom Bailey
Dr Fox, the director of the festival, and his teams in the UAE and UK have been working on the project for the two years since the last event, in Britain. Courtesy Tom Bailey

"Eagles are done but it's falcons I'm short of," booms Dr Nick Fox into the receiver to an unidentified caller.

It doesn't sound an especially auspicious start to preparations for the third International Festival of Falconry starting today in Al Ain.

But Dr Fox, the director of the festival, and his teams in the UAE and UK have been working on the project for the two years since the last event, in Britain.

And it's not just the birds that have been a logistical challenge. The arrival of falconers from about 80 countries has been no easy feat. Many of them, Dr Fox says, "have never been to a big city, let alone on a plane".

Their tickets had to be paid for (courtesy, like all the show's expenses, of the Emirates Falconry Club), visas organised and hotels booked. But that was just the start.

They are bringing yurts and teepees and will be hosted, along with about 1,000 people, at a desert hunting camp 40 minutes outside of Al Ain.

"If you've just come from minus 30 degrees in Mongolia it takes a little while to acclimatise, so they'll have three days doing excursions and going to the desert camp," Dr Fox says.

"At the camp they will be introduced to the birds and they will prepare their arena events with those birds. And they will be going hunting in traditional manner, riding on camels and hunting for desert hares."

In the arena, where public displays will take place next Thursday, Friday and Saturday, there are no desert hares to kill. Instead, the falconers will simulate hunting in their own countries.

"For example, the UK will simulate catching rabbits," explains the splendidly named Jim Chick, the chairman of Britain's Hawk Board.

"We've … located a ferret in Dubai so we'll borrow that, simulate a rabbit bolting out of a hole and then the goshawk will chase it, either using a radio-controlled rabbit or a rabbit skin attached to a very long line pulled at great speed."

The presence of a ferret shows how few stones remain unturned in the search for the authenticity expected of an Intangible Cultural Heritage approved by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Hunting dogs are also rare in the UAE, yet several were found, thanks to expatriate owners.

The Mongolians bring with them unique problems.

"The steppes countries will drag a fox lure behind a horse at full gallop and then the eagle will be able to chase it down the arena and catch it," Mr Chick says.

"There are plenty of horses but they're not the correct type of horses. And you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to take a red fox skin into the UAE. Here in Britain, I could just pick one up off the road.

"All we want to do is drag it behind a horse and it'll be destroyed by an eagle in about three days."

A concurrent three-day conference covers subjects including the vulture crisis in India, traditional Arabian falcon remedies, and the role of women in falconry.

"People like Mary, Queen of Scots, used to fly merlin falcons," says Dr Fox. "And in the old days ladies would even get married carrying one."

Two merlins are among the few raptors that have been flown in from the UK, along with a New Zealand falcon, an Aplomado falcon, a prairie falcon and a gyrfalcon.

Pakistan is importing 30 goshawks and the rest have been borrowed from zoos and private collections in the UAE, as well as a few from the hunting camp of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

So how do the foreign falcons actually get here? Well, you can banish images of cosseted birds sampling the first-class menu on Etihad. "They go on commercial aircraft," says Mr Chick. "They're in the hold - it's the same as if you take your dog out, really." It's not as gloriously wild as the old-fashioned way of gliding into Arabia in pursuit of migrating Houbara bustards, but perhaps less stressful for all concerned.

newsdesk@thenational.ae