International Falconry Festival in Abu Dhabi
The International Falconry Festival is held every 3 to 4 years. This year the festival was held in Abu Dhabi and I was invited to attend. The festival was special because there were two different parts of the festival, Desert Camp and the actual festival. This is the only event in the world that would have as many falconers as it did at one time. This year there was more than 70 different countries in attendance.
I arrived two weeks before the festival started because I was a US ambassador and falcon trainer for the festival. Those two weeks prior to the festival we stayed in the middle of the desert, where there was a small village of tents were set up. This was called Desert Camp. The guests could experience hunting rabbits and houbara with hawks and falcons off of camels and horses with local falconers. At desert camp each falconer was appointed a hawk or falcon and in some cases an eagle. I was appointed 3 birds. A male Gyr Falcon, a female Gyr X hybrid, and a Prairie Falcon, which I would be flying in the arena for the American program. Other birds that would be used for other nations programs in the arena events consisted of Peregrine Falcon, African Fish Eagle, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagles, American Kestrels, Australian Peregrine Falcon, and Steps Eagle. Other falconers and ambassadors came from England, Argentina, South Africa, Netherlands, Spain and Germany. During the two weeks at Desert Camp I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the local falconers.
During our time together they taught me how they trained their falcons. In the Middle East falconry is practiced differently than it is in the US. Their falcons are trained to have more of a pursuit style way of hunting. In the US most of the falcon hunting consists of hunting a falcon from a pitch (above). In the Middle East the main quarry that is hunted is a game bird called the houbara and on occasion the hare. I had the privilege to go hunting with the local falconers. Camels were used as we rode through the open desert searching for the houbara. The local falconers would look in the sand for tracks of the houbara. Once the tracks were located in the sand we would follow the tracks until the houbara was spotted. Once the houbara was spotted a falcon would be released. The falcon would then chase the houbara. The houbara would then fly and the hunt was on. In most cases the flight would end up far away and we weren’t able to see the end but on several flights I witnessed a falcon chase the houbara up in to the sky which is called a ringing flight and in other flights the falcon would chase the houbara a short distance and a standoff and fight would occur, resulting with the falcon eventually killing the houbara and in some cases resulting in another ringing flight. The houbara has two defense mechanisms. The first is just simply fighting. The second is excreting oil while in flight which covers the falcon and prohibits him from flying.
After the hunt we would arrive back at Desert Camp and I was asked to attend dinner with the local falconers in their tents. I had the opportunity to help prepare the game that was caught. What made this experience so special was that the Middle Eastern falconers prepared the meal traditionally. The game was cooked over an open fire or boiled and served with rice. It was all placed on a large platter and placed on the floor of the tent where we sat in a circle around it and ate with our right hand, another tradition in the Middle Eastern culture. The left hand is to be thought of as your dirty hand because that is the hand that is used when using the restroom. There was another thing that the local falconers did that I found interesting. As I mentioned the food is placed on a big platter. Each falconer has his own area of food that he eats from. I watched as each falconer would place food in the area of the person sitting next to him to share. It was really cool to watch.
After the first 2 weeks the festival guests started arriving. They were treated to the desert experience, sleeping in tents and hunting off of camel and horseback with the local falconers. There were over 1000 people at Desert Camp. It was fun spending time with falconers from around the world. After 4 days of Desert Camp experience the festival moved in to the city of Abu Dhabi where the second part of the festival took place.
Each country had their own tent that displayed and represented their country. A lot of the falconers wore their traditional dress. Others played instruments and music. American Manny Carrasco known for his Rhino activism represented the US by playing the traditional Native American flute. There were also arena events where falconers from different countries would display the types of hawks, falcons, and eagles they hunted with. The Parade of Nations was special. Falconers from each country would walk around the arena with their flag, traditional dress and a hawk, falcon or eagle that was native to their country.
One of the many special things that I experienced while I was in Abu Dhabi was meeting, and getting to know the kids who attend the festival. I met the son of one of the local falconers, who was also a falconer. Ashol-Pan, a young Mongolian girl who is also a falconer became famous when a photographer wrote an article on her that ended up in National Geographic. Munene and Ryan from Zimbabwe traveled to Abu Dhabi with a few adult falconers. They attend a school in Zimbabwe that offers a falconry course. These and all the other children are the future of this sport and it was truly an honor to meet them.
The Falconry Festival is one of the best events I attend. Not only for the falconry experience but what I enjoy most is seeing old friends and meeting new friends and learning their cultures.