The Third International Festival of Falconry
By Joe Atkinson
published in Falconers & Raptors Conservation Magazine 2012
Sometimes your life can take completely unexpected turns and being asked to go to the Third International Festival of Falconry in Al Ain in the UAE to train eagles as a member of the Eagle Team is what dreams are made of, especially if you are a life long falconer. The Eagle Team or, as we preferred to be called, “The Magnificent Seven”, was a group of eagle falconers selected from all over the globe. I would be remiss if I did not give them their just due and mention them by name. So, in an effort to give them their five seconds of fame here they are… Andrew Knowles-Brown (Scotland), our team leader, Alan Rothery (Scotland), Daniel Kohlmann (Germany), Calvin Crossman (England), Lauren McGough (USA), Chase Delles (USA), and myself (USA). But let me say it was my pleasure to work with them. Their skill and compassion for the eagles was exceptional.
Our job was to handle a varied group of eagles assembled for the festival and the desert camp was going to be our training field. The list of eagles included two Steppe Eagles, a Spotted Eagle, a Short Toed Eagle, a Bonelli Eagle, an African Fish Eagle, a White Tailed Sea Eagle, four Golden Eagles and one Imperial eagle. This group of eagles ranged greatly regarding how much or how little they had been worked with. Some eagles had been doing flying displays at the Al Ain Zoo or as part of a Bird of Prey Show in Dubai while others had not been handled at all and required total manning from square one. The vast majority of the eagles would only be required to sit and behave themselves hooded on the fist, but several were going to be included in flight displays during country presentations at the festival. All of these eagles were going to be in our care for three weeks which meant they needed to be fed on the fist and learn to accept the hood as a part of their daily routine. All eagles were weighed daily and food amounts were given according to what the scale revealed. All flying eagles were fitted with Marshall tail mounts and were, for obvious reasons, always flown with a Marshall transmitter clipped on the tail.
Having only viewed one photograph of the desert camp prior to arriving gave me only a slight idea of what to expect — at least I knew what the camp itself looked like, but that was it. I was, however, not prepared for life at the desert camp which was to be my home for the next two and a half weeks. Just seeing a photograph of some tents sitting out in the sand did not come close to preparing me for this adventure of a lifetime.
Life at desert camp was like stepping back in time, back into the falconry books I had read as a child. I can remember seeing photos of hunting parties going out into the desert on camel back and other pictures of Arabian falconers sitting around campfires with beautiful falcons perched all around them, the light from the fire dancing across their feathers, giving them a surreal look. These falcons were, to me, the most glorious creatures I had ever seen. I remember one photograph in particular that has stayed with me until this day. The photo showed a lone falconer standing on the top of a sand dune, holding his falcon, looking out over the vast desert he was hunting. I always thought, how could he possibly find anything in a land such as that? Where would one even start looking? The desert is so big and life there is so scarce. For me, this desert is so far removed from my world, I never thought I would ever come here. But there I was, standing in the desert of my dreams, the desert of my childhood memories, living and breathing in the desert ways, seeing for myself how one can hunt in this vast desert that is so big, so endless and so unforgiving.
The most rewarding part of the experience was the opportunity to participate in this culture on the other side of the world, so different from my daily life in eastern Oregon. Each day, after washing their hands and removing their shoes, everyone would gather in the food tent and sit down on plush pillows, waiting for the food to arrive. It was during these times, with falconers from all over the world sitting together and talking about falconry, telling stories of flights and hunts from the far corners of the world, bringing laughter and smiles to all, that I understood how privileged I was to be a part of this event.
Eating food in the traditional Arab style is somewhat of an adjustment, particularly for someone like me who is not used to sitting on the floor. So, with each meal, my past sports related injuries would be there to protest loudly. The food was primarily lamb and rice and rumor has it that we had camel one afternoon. If we did, I couldn’t tell any difference. Our meals were laid before us on very large silver trays, heaping over with rice and an entire lamb on top, accompanied by a yogurt sauce used to moisten the rice, as well as plenty of salad greens and fruit. Most took their meals with their hands as is the Arab tradition, myself included, although forks and spoons were available as an option.
The desert camp changed each day with new tents being erected daily and more and more falconers arriving all the time. Initially we had had the entire camp to ourselves and flying our eagles was never anything to be concerned about. The falcon team flew their falcons further out in the desert making any eagle-falcon contact highly unlikely. But as the official start of the festival grew nearer, with each passing day, the training of both eagles and falcons became more intense and the need to fly all the birds in the practice ring was much more critical. The eagle and falcon teams agreed to a system whereby we would inform all concerned, via hand held radios, as to when any bird was in the air or, heaven forbid, gone missing. This system worked well until desert camp was besieged with non-English speaking falconers who were not aware of the system nor accustomed to asking when they could fly their birds! You can only imagine the scene and the potential train wreck that could have occurred when the eagle team was flying a particularly aggressive and quite agile male golden eagle and suddenly someone released a white gyrfalcon that spotted the same lure the eagle was flying to. Fortunately, disaster was avoided by the quick reactions of the falconers working the eagle but situations like this were a constant concern, as you may well imagine.
Excitement was building in camp as the camel hunts were being organized and names were being posted as to which hunting party you got to go on, morning or afternoon. Cordi, my wife, and I were picked to go on the first morning of camel hunts, which meant being at the camel barn at 6:00am, before sun up. Just like all deserts, regardless of where they are in the world, they are hot during the day and quite cold at night. This desert was no exception. That morning we all stood around bundled up in coats watching the camel herd arrive through a thick morning fog. The whole scene had a very “Star Wars” effect to it with camels just appearing out of the mist wearing brightly colored blankets, many with their entire nose and mouth covered in beautifully braided muzzles. The muzzles were necessary because, we were told,“Camel likes to go everywhere and eat everything, not stay with group. This no let them eat.” This is good….. can’t have my camel going off on some food searching side trip and get separated from the group!
I was, I admit, just a little hesitant about climbing on the back of a camel. They look somehow unstable and just a little intolerant of humans. They gave me the impression that they would toss their rider off at the slightest excuse. I have spent my entire life around horses so riding was not the issue, there was just something about the way camels act, the males roaring like a lion, all the while baring their long yellow teeth, which was just a little unnerving. And, for me, they were difficult to read. I can read a horse easily enough; I know, for example, when a horse is upset or going to bolt at any second, but with camels I had no clue. Plus, they are so tall, it’s a long way to fall! So I knew that if I thought about riding a camel too much, knowing me, I would not have climbed aboard. So, up I went, with many of my so-called friends all waiting to see if I would take a nose dive into the sand as the camel stood up. You see, camels, probably because they have such long legs or are testing you to see if you are worthy, stand up by abruptly raising their hind ends first, then the front legs come up. This action, if one is not ready, can (and did, for some), send the rider over the top and into the sand face first. This, however, was not my first rodeo, as they say, and although Cordi would argue to the contrary, I do pay attention and so, much to everyone’s disappointment, I was ready and all went according to plan. On the other hand, Cordi never gave riding a camel a second thought. She climbed on her camel like she was reliving a past life, guiding her camel around everywhere on her own. I would have gladly guided my camel by myself as well but, sadly, he was tied to the lead camel and, you know, that was just fine by me.
We hunted for three or four hours with success, seeing the second desert hare taken legally in thirty-six years, the first having been caught by the other hunting party that same morning. The desert hare has been a protected species and is making a dramatic comeback due, in large part, to an extensive breeding project on their behalf. One thing that is to be said about the Emiratis, they will spend the money to get things done. I was, I’m not ashamed to admit, most pleased to dismount my camel — seems certain parts of my body didn’t take so kindly to the hump!
Thinking back about the entire experience I find it difficult to wrap my brain around the whole thing. First of all, just going there was an adventure all on itself. Traveling alone is something I do not do well. The big joke around my household was that I would be lost somewhere in Charles de Gaulle airport, wandering aimlessly from terminal to terminal, never to be seen again. Well, I’m happy to report I made it just fine, thank you. Then there was the whole desert camp scene. Think about it…… living out in the desert with everything set up for one purpose, falconry. And each day the experience grows and takes on unimaginable directions, with more and more falconry. The authors that penned the falconry books I read as a young lad could never in their wildest dreams have envisioned the advancements of falconry on display at the desert camp; remote-controlled airplanes pulling a lure up into the sky with falcons in hot pursuit, flying at the limit of what seemed possible to avoid the speedy falcons; large balloons carrying a lure thousands of feet up in the sky with falcons climbing to small pin dots to claim their prize. All this was a sight to behold, the wonders of the modern sport of falconry on full display. And heck, I haven’t even said a word about the festival itself, that’s a whole other article on it’s own.
I think Cordi summed up our experience in the desert camp nicely when she said : “Here I am, an American woman, riding a camel out in the Arabian desert, hunting houbara, being led by an Emirati falconer on one side and a Pakistani falconer on the other, with all the huge problems in the world, yet we are all here together because of one thing…. a shared passion….the common love of falconry.” It is truly the sport of the world.