“I have been told that in England, it takes 50 days to train a wild falcon but, here, the Arabs had them ready in a fortnight to three weeks. This is because they were never separated from them. A man who was training a falcon carried it about everywhere with him,” notes English explorer Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands, a travelogue documenting the author’s five-year journey across the deserts of Arabia, long before the United Arab Emirates (UAE) came into the riches bestowed by the discovery of oil.
While written in the 1940s, Thesiger’s observation continues to hold true in 21st century Abu Dhabi. Instead of traversing the Empty Quarter on horseback with their owners, today’s falcons are frequent fliers on Etihad Airways, the national carrier of the UAE. Armed with their very own passports issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water, these birds of prey sit on perches secured in front of cabin seats. In business class, each traveller is allowed to board with up to two falcons. Unlike their owners, falcons fly at a standardised rate across all cabin classes, ranging from US$180 (S$250) for a short-haul flight within the Middle East to US$390 for long-haul journeys. Perhaps a fair price since the birds – hooded for the entire journey to dull any sensory input – aren’t in a hurry to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
It is in the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital where I come eye to eye with an unhooded falcon. Sporting a pristine white plumage, the gyrfalcon regards me – possibly as prey – for a moment before scanning the room, where 20 other hooded birds, ranging from regal cream peregrines to dusky brown sakers, sit in silence, awaiting their turn for treatment. A rare sight indeed, for these solitary hunters to share perch, a wingspan away from their deadly comrades. “They will kill each other if we remove the hoods,” says Fahad Amur Al Badi, the administrative assistant of the hospital.
Established in 1999, the hospital is the world’s largest facility of its kind that treats over 10,000 birds each year. Its clientele includes royalty such as Sheikh Khalifa, the current president of the UAE, wealthy Emiratis, as well as falconers from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. “Last month, we had one customer who drove over 2,000km from Saudi Arabia to bring his falcon from here,” says Fahad.
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