Falconry is an international yet rare sport which people have practiced for centuries. However, in Qatar and the rest of the Middle East, falconry is prevalent. To the people of the region, it’s more than a sport; falconry is part of their national and cultural identity. ‘It’s a sport and heritage,’ said Qatari falconer, Mohammed Al Sulaiti. ‘It’s authentic heritage. They existed from the time of the prophets as well as from the time of the pharaohs. If you look at the drawings of pharaohs, the falcon existed.’
History of Falconry
It is believed that the sport of falconry originated in the Middle East, beginning 5,000 years ago. Over time, it spread to the East and West. Falconry became a less popular sport in the West, however in Qatar and the region, it continues to thrive.
According to Qatar’s only falconry association, Al Gannas, the sport was introduced to the country through Bedouin tribes who used falcons as a tool for hunting, taking down birds migrating across the Arabian Peninsula. Today, falconry has transformed from a hunting strategy to a sport.
Since its establishment in 2008, Al Gannas, which is located at Katara, has been promoting falconry to preserve the sport and support falconers as well as falcon hunters in the country. The association has the best facilities and equipment required for hunting, and encourages research and studies in the field. In addition, it holds hunting and falconry events including competitions such as the Annual Qatar Falconry Festival.
It’s a nice competition and there are lots of prizes to be awarded,’ said Al Sulaiti. According to him, a beautifully feathered falcon can win cash prizes from QAR300,000 to QAR500,000. The fastest bird to fly and catch a dove receives QAR100,000. They release a pigeon, which the falcon flies after. If it catches it, it’s considered a winning falcon. They then gather all the winning birds together and have them fly after more doves again.’
In this competition, the owner of the winning falcon wins a Lexus. There are also awards for the fastest falcons.
‘We have a bird called al hebara, when a bird trainer sees it, he’s astonished. So when we catch this bird, we take his wings, we put on salt and other spices and let it dry, then we train the falcon to see this bird as food, so he comes. In this competition, the speed is determined by time, the fastest falcon to catch the al hebara bird wins QAR100,000.’
The Hunting Season
According to Al Sulaiti, there are approximately 2,500 to 3,000 falcon owners in Qatar. People either buy falcons or hunt for them.
They come from abroad – Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and from all around the world. Very few falcons come from Qatar.’
Falconry enthusiasts anticipate the hunting season, which is from October to April. In preparation for the season, enthusiasts equip and train the birds. Falcons migrate by passing through the central and northern Arabian Peninsula, southeast Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and northern Saudi Arabia, coming from Russia and Eastern Europe. Migration begins from late September to early December, and then they are bound for Africa. Finally, their return journey starts from late February until April. Many falcons are left behind in transit zones during the migration, and the wind has a major impact on changing the course of migration.
During the season, which starts in October, they come from abroad; we call them ‘Gata’ because they cut through from one place to another. So they come from abroad and people catch them. But they would be expensive because of the effort involved.’
Buying a falcon can be expensive. The price of a falcon can go up to QAR1 million, depending on its characteristics such as its beauty, physical appearance, origins, strength and more. To determine a falcon’s beauty, you need experience.
Not anyone can do it. There are details you need to pay attention to – the body; the nose, specifically the nostrils, they should be big; the shape of his head; and the wings.’
The falcons passing through the area of the Arabian Peninsula are considered some of the most beautiful and finest breeds. However, a falcon’s beauty and strength is not everlasting.
The older the falcon gets, so his eyesight and wings weaken; just like us, it goes away as we get older.’
A falcon can live for as long as 20 years.
To win competitions, the falcon has to go through training, and that’s where Al Sulaiti comes in. He has been a falconer for approximately 30 years and now, he teaches young men and women how to raise and train their falcons.
I teach people how to hold it, how to take care of it so that they don’t get a falcon and hurt it. You have to have respect for the falcon. In our culture, we respect a falcon like we respect a man. It is unacceptable for someone to play with a falcon. I direct people on how to correctly train it. It teaches patience and makes the mind work. A person must think…how do I deal with him, how can I read his mind, how can I make it do things, so it’s not easy.’
There is no age requirement to begin practicing falconry. The sport isn’t only restricted to men, there are female falconers in Qatar as well, locals and expatriates.
There are women involved in the sport but it’s more of a man’s sport…it’s not unusual to find a woman training a falcon; even female expatriates own falcons and practice the sport. It’s a hobby. If you love falcons, that’s it. If you like to listen and learn, you’re ready.’
First of all, a person should spend time with people who have falcons so he may watch and learn…he’ll learn step by step, then he can master it on his own. When he masters it, then he can evaluate himself.’
But there are laws you need to be aware of before you begin the sport. Each country has different falconry laws.
There’s a law you have to follow…the law says you have to respect the falcon, train him and much more. We say falconry is an ‘amana’, which means upholding a trust. Falconry varies from one person to another but the law is one.’
Sourced from Al Gannas’ website, the following are some falconry laws you should be aware of:
The Chairman of the Supreme Council for Environment and Natural Reserves issued Law 8 of 2004 regarding the hunting season, stating the following: ‘Bustards are the only type of bird allowed to be hunted by falcons’. Article 1 of the resolution prohibits hunting of other types of birds. Law 7 of 2004 prohibits importing hawks from outside of the State except during the period of September to January each year. Article 2 prohibits importing the Peregrine Falcon over two years old.
Types of falcons
There are several types of falcons. According to Al Gannas’ website, falcons are generally divided into four categories (most commonly seen in Qatar):
Widespread in many countries around the world, and differs in size and colour depending on its country of origin. It’s not considered a migratory bird and is characterised by ease of training and a skillful hunting.
This bird is one of the most widely distributed species in the world. It’s found on every continent except Antarctica. These birds are the most ferocious breed. There are two different types of peregrines; sea and land. The latter is smaller than the former. It can survive in a wide variety of habitats including urban cities, the tropics, deserts and the tundra. Some migrate long distances from their wintering areas to their summer nesting areas.
Lives in Eastern Europe, Russia, Pakistan, and the Balkans. It is known for its beauty and strength. The size of female sakers is greater than that of the male.
Falcon originating from cold areas surrounding the North Pole. It earned its name because it prefers to breed in the mountains, limestone in particular. Gyrs are present in abundance in some countries, and are not in demand by falconry enthusiasts. Its attributes include a high price, its ability to fly long distances, and was referred to in the Middle Ages as the bird of kings and nobles.
Travelling with falcons
Falcons are easy to travel with. Some airlines in the Gulf region including Qatar Airways, Emirates Airways and Etihad Airways allow falcons to travel with the passenger in the cabin. The charge for each additional seat purchased for a falcon will be the fare applicable for an adult guest occupying the seat, depending on the number of seats as well as the travel class.
Qatar Airways allows only falcons and service dogs to travel in the cabin with passengers but only on specific routes.
If you’re interested in the sport of falconry, Al Sulaiti suggests familiarising yourself with the animal and being patient. ‘Don’t get bored because this is an animal…the two most important things are patience and calmness.’ Al Sulaiti hopes to one day open the first school of falconry in Qatar where he can teach children this national sport.
For more information on falconry in Qatar or if you’re interested in learning the sport, contact Mohammed Al Sulaiti at 5551 6637.
Author: Ola Diab
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