Millennia ago, nomadic Bedouins made their homes in the arid, sweltering climes of the Arabian Desert. In this harsh ecosystem, food was hard to come by and even harder to catch. To survive, this ancient civilization turned to the region’s superior hunters: the falcons that migrated overhead each year. Developing techniques to capture and train the birds as hunting partners, the Bedouins were able to secure food for their families, making life in the desert sustainable. Falconry became central to Bedouin culture and in time, to Arabian culture at large.
Over centuries, this practice — as much an artform as a means of survival — spread outward from the Middle East along the Silk Road, evolving from sustenance hunting into royal recreation: the “sport of Kings.” Falconry found its way into the journals of Marco Polo, the writings of Aristotle, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the archives of emperors from Rome to the Far East. Today, it is considered one of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity in 17 countries across three continents, and known by historians to be one of the oldest human activities. However, it faces a growing challenge: As ecosystems struggle around the world, raptor populations, too, are in decline.
Overwhelmingly, researchers say, falcons are threatened by a dangerous combination of habitat loss, increasing scarcity of prey, and other factors from changing land use across the European continent, to deforestation in Madagascar, to climate change in the Arctic. But for as long as falconers have trained and flown birds of prey, they have known that in order to ensure the practice’s sustainability, they must also defend them. Accordingly, some of the world’s earliest known avian conservation laws, as far back as the 14th century, were established for the protection of prized falconry species. Drawing on this centuries-long legacy, falconers are now looking to their practice to not only protect and foster wild raptor populations, but to protect and foster the habitats where they thrive.
According to vet and wildlife conservation expert, Dr. Albara Alothman, an appreciation for and inclination to care for the natural environment comes with the territory. “[Falconers] like to be in nature and to be involved in nature, walking with their birds and dogs, sleeping outdoors, all of which is a part of their ideology,” Alothman says. “You have to connect with and understand the environment to understand the natural capabilities of the falcon.”
This inherent falconry-environmentalism relationship has tangible benefits: since raptor population decline came to light in the 1970s, falconers around the globe have been spearheading major funding initiatives, research projects, conservation laws, and on-the-ground wildlife management efforts to protect these birds, and in turn, their heritage.
From Japan to South Africa to New Zealand, falconers have established trusts and organizations to research and rehabilitate native raptor populations. In Mongolia, a research-driven initiative has so far installed 5,000 artificial nests yielding more than 2,300 fledglings of the globally endangered saker falcon. In Bulgaria, a saker falcon reintroduction project is underway that at last count had increased the breeding population from one lone active nest to ten. In the United States, the falconer-founded Peregrine Fund helped bring the species back from the brink of extinction through the captive breeding and release of thousands of falcons into the wild. Today, the peregrine is on the rebound in North America.
On the Arabian Peninsula, where falconry is central to cultural identity, falconers are driving conservation efforts on a massive scale. To fight illegal trade and the sale of wild birds and their eggs on the black market, governments have banned the capture of wild falcons, instead encouraging and funding captive breeding programs. The United Arab Emirates has pledged $20 million toward raptor conservation initiatives, including the retrofitting of power lines for raptor safety. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has instated international conventions on the protection of falcons and other migratory birds.
Saudi Arabia is also working to rewild habitats that are home to falcons: According to Environmental Advisor Ahmed Al-Bouq at the Saudi National Center for Wildlife Development, in the coming years the center is gearing up to release animals into the wild in a hundred locations across the region, including gazelles and oryx, Alpine ibexes, ostriches and endangered houbara bustards. This work is being done in collaboration with the Saudi Falcons Club’s Hadad program, home to a number of initiatives for the research and rehabilitation of wild saker falcons and other native species.
Parallel to these efforts, falconers are working to introduce newcomers and young people to the practice. The early 2000s brought the rise of falcon racing in the Middle East, where judges clock trained birds’ speed as they chase their falconers’ lures — an engaging, accessible and sustainable new take on the ancient artform.
Infused with new energy, falconry festivals, clubs and pageants are on the rise. According to Wild Allies, 2021, a documentary which explores the King Abdulaziz Falconry Festival in Riyadh, which has become the world’s largest event of its kind in the few short years since its 2017 launch, the goal of such efforts is twofold: the preservation of the environment — through protecting wild populations by requiring racing falcons to be captive-bred, and through providing an ecologically sustainable alternative to hunting prey — and the perpetuation of Arab heritage.
In modern falconry, its practice, its celebration, and the research and conservation programs that come with it, falconers help to ensure the sport remains an active legacy — not a piece of history — for generations to come.
Find out more about the intricacies of training falcons, as well as conservation efforts currently underway to preserve these fierce and majestic creatures, here.