No animal has played such a vital role in the history of the UAE as the falcon. Before the desert sands became slicked with petrochemical dollars, the birds were integral to the lives of the Bedouin. They would trap the migrating wild falcons, carrying them on their arms day and night for up to a fortnight in order to break them in. The tame birds would then be used to hunt anything from rabbits to gazelle. But, traditionally, the falcon was more than a tool, it was a part of the family.
While it is now illegal to trap wild falcons, not to mention hunt with them (falcon hunting is prohibited in order to conserve the UAE’s precious wildlife), to this day they have retained their status in Arabic culture. Birds can sell for anywhere between Dhs5,000 and Dhs70,000 depending upon their pedigree. Bizarrely, they are the only animal that cannot be kept in storage on a UAE flight. Those being transported travel up front, with their owners having to book a second seat. They also require their very own falcon passport, without which the creature will find itself arriving at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
The hospital was started by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi in 1999. To all intents and purposes it is a working veterinary clinic; it takes in 4,500 falcons a year from clients across the Gulf, handling 40 to 60 extra birds a day during hunting season.
As well as treating the birds, the hospital educates their owners. No legislation yet exists for caring for falcons, Dr Magit Muller, the German director of the facility, tells me. ‘We have changed a lot of things over the years. In the beginning, a lot of the birds who came in for treatment were very sick; then we explained to the owners that it’s better to bring the birds for prevention check-ups. Now most of the birds are coming for routine examinations.’
There is no other place in the world quite like it. Consequently, the hospital has become a thriving tourist destination. Tours now run twice a day during the week, with gangs of visitors descending upon the hospital. Once there, you will not only learn about the history of the animals, but hold them, stroke them, even watch them being treated.
In the treatment room, hooded falcons sit in rows, as if in some kind of avant-garde theatre. We witness an injured feather being replaced. A duplicate is plucked from a draw of replacements and attached to a makeshift bamboo splint then glued into place.
While the creature sleeps, visitors step up tentatively to stroke the dozing bird. Before long the operation is over and it awakes from the anaesthesia in a whirl of flapping. Its treat? A chicken carcass. Just hearing it crunch its way through a chicken bone (they require bones and feathers for digestion) gives a clue as to the power of this creature. We’re told that the peregrine falcon, the smallest of the birds, can carry three times its own weight, and fly at up to 300km per hour. It certainly doesn’t discourage the group from queuing up to hold one of the birds, whereupon the falcon’s handler will jiggle your gloved hand to make the bird flap and its wings stretch out magnificently. It really is a remarkable experience.
The tour slowly winds its way to the air-conditioned free-flight aviary. As the falcons begin to molt, they require space to fly, away from the blinding heat of the desert sun. It also provides a welcome spot for recuperating birds to find their feet (or wings) again. As well as paying customers, the hospital also takes in confiscated and injured birds, reintroducing them to the wild through its release programme. Although there are exceptions: a pair of owls live in a small aviary of their own, one of them a baffling case of veterinary science, unable to regrow the feathers it lost in an accident. The chances of release are slim, and they have become adopted by the hospital.
This is, simply, a remarkable place, and, as Magit reminds us, ‘The only one of its kind in the world.’ Certainly, it is a rare chance to get so close to one of the kings of the sky.
Tours of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital are conducted Sat-Thu, 10am and 2pm. The tours last two-three hours; Dhs150 per person for a tour; Dhs200 including lunch. Call 02 575 5155 to book a tour. Transport from Dubai can be arranged with the hospital