Focus: Falconry



Aug. 21, 2014

Falcons are capable of bringing down an array of native game ranging in size from pigeons to rabbits, hares, and even small gazelles. In fact, the Saker Falcon is even capable of flight while carrying a Houbara, a large native bird several times its own weight.

Given the perilous nature of surviving in a desert environment away from the coast and oasis, it is easy to understand just how important falcons were to Bedouin communities prior to the modern era. A good falcon could mean the difference between life and death as families sought to survive in desolate, arid, and often inhospitable environments.

To this day, the image of a UAE hunter in traditional dress with a falcon in hand remains an enduring symbol of the traditional way of life prior to the modern period of development. However, despite the transformation of the country, the sport of falconry remains a popular pasttime in the UAE. The relationship between owners and their falcons, formed over centuries of symbiotic survival remains strong, with the hunting bird seen as more of an extension of the family than a working animal.


Evidence of the compassion felt toward falcons by the people of the UAE can be seen in the array of government initiatives designed to protect the animal. In response to the depletion of natural falcon numbers, the UAE government established the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme in 1996. Captive falcons are returned to the wild every year to replenish native stocks. These days they often wear tracking devices so scientists can better understand the birds' migratory habits. This practice is not limited to the UAE, with previous releases taking place in suitable habitats in Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan.

The popularity of falcons in the UAE and GCC has created demand for the birds, which often results in illegal smuggling. In order to crack down on this practice and prevent animal traders from raiding wild habitats, the government of the UAE (through the Ministry of Environment & Water) has introduced a novel solution: The Falcon Passport Program. Falcons are required to have passports indicating information pertaining to their origin, export dates, and relevant permit details. This is done in accordance with the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, designed to protect critically endangered species such as the Saker Falcon. Approximately 28,000 such passports have been issued in the UAE.


In 1999, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) was established by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) to provide medical treatment for falcons. Since that time, the institution has grown dramatically with enthusiasts from across the GCC bringing their falcons to Abu Dhabi for examination. According to its director, Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller, it is now, “…treating more than 8,000 falcons annually, making it the leading falcon hospital in the world."

In addition to the medical side of operations, substantial research takes place at the ADFH. New diseases and parasites have been discovered and unique blood reference parameter data has been collated based on the volume of birds that pass through the ADFH's doors. A program for veterinary student interns is in its fifth year, offering international exposure and information sharing. As Dr. Muller explains, “To date, we have hosted 110 trainees from more than 32 countries. This is truly international and a boon for Abu Dhabi, which has now become the international center of falconry."

Throughout the week, busloads of visitors arrive to visit the Falcon Hospital, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city of Abu Dhabi. In addition to seeing living birds, visitors also learn about the role falcons play in the heritage of the UAE. A museum, as well as a conference facility capable of seating 200, is also attached to the institute for this purpose. The latter has proven to be a popular corporate venue for both international and local companies.


Not surprisingly, the love of falcons has been reflected in the country's national symbols. The Peregrine Falcon is the UAE national animal. Since 1973, the national coat of arms has been a depiction of a golden falcon holding a scroll with “United Arab Emirates" written in Arabic, a symbol visible on the tail fins of Etihad Airways aircraft.

In early 2013, the emblem of Abu Dhabi itself, a similar design, was reworked to display a falcon clutching two traditional daggers with the name of the Emirate overhead. All bank notes feature a prominently placed falcon next to national landmarks. On the Arabic language side of the 500 Dirham note (worth approximately $135 at the time of writing) a falcon is presented in the foreground as the central image.

The characteristics of strength, courage, beauty, and grace associated with the bird appear in a myriad of stamps and company logos, and were even integrated into the Scuderia Toro Rosso Formula 1 cars during the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.