FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Falconry

Mar 1, 2007
2007 / March 2007

Do I look like a man who would pay $100,000 for a falcon? It is a rhetorical question.

In the falcon market in Doha, Qatar, I stand alone beside a sandy-floored display pen, admiring the hooded raptors on their perches. The shop owner has given me a cursory glance, has seen the camera dangling from my neck, and has gone back to reading his newspaper. His employees, dressed in white Arab robes, talk among themselves. Nobody has bothered to open negotiations: I haven’t even been offered the obligatory cup of tea.

“Excuse me?” I ask. “Would it be possible to hold one of the birds?” The shop owner looks up, thinks about it, and nods to one of his minions. “A saker, perhaps?” I have uttered the magic word. The owner himself leaps up and bustles over to me.

“Would you like some tea?” he asks warmly, ushering me onto the sand. Two-dozen birds are perched there. Most are peregrine falcons, but there is also a trio of larger saker falcons from Central Asia. Each one is possibly worth more than a Lexus. The saker is the world’s most prized hunting bird.

Falconry has a history that spans at least two-and-a-half thousand years. The sport was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, by Chinese and Japanese emperors, and, from medieval times, by Europe’s aristocracy. But the heartland has always been the Middle East. Here, falconry remains an expensive obsession.

Wearing a protective glove, I take the weight of the saker on my fist. It is a formidable animal, a foot-and-a-half tall with a fiercely hooked beak and rapier-sharp talons. This is the bird favored by Arabian dignitaries for their lavish expeditions to the wilds of Pakistan and Morocco in pursuit of the houbara bustard, the most valued game bird.

It can take many months to train a falcon, and longer for a human handler to become a master falconer — usually seven years. The bond between falconer and bird is based on cooperation rather than ownership, for a trained falcon remains wild at heart. Both parties must work together to hunt their prey successfully, sharing the spoils. The purity of this relationship is, for many practitioners, the central joy of falconry. In recent decades, the sport has gained a dedicated band of followers in the United States. The nation’s premier falconry club is the North American Falconers Association (www.n-a-f-a.org), which provides information and advice to anyone interested in taking it up.

With the saker resting on my hand, I can appreciate something of the mystique of this ancient pastime. “How much is this bird?” I inquire. The shop owner chuckles, sticking by his initial assessment of me: “You cannot afford it.”

The exorbitant prices fetched by the top falcons are a measure of their increasing rarity in the wild. A U.S.-based group, the Union for the Conservation of Raptors (www.savethefalcon.org) alleges that the black market is worth $300 million. The U.A.E.-based Save the Saker campaign (www.savethesakers.com) contends that the principle cause of the decline of the species has been the loss of habitat and the use of pesticides, rather than illegal capture and trade.

A few months after my visit to Doha’s falcon market, I find myself in the Arabian desert with a falconer. Carefully he removes the leather hood covering the eyes of his valuable charge. The bird launches itself up into the endless expanse of sky. For several minutes we watch it flying free, and then, apparently by choice, it returns to the outstretched arm of the falconer.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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