a mother falcon and her four chicks in a nest under a dramatic sky

Inside a Sheikh's Plan to Protect the World's Fastest Animal

Raising and training falcons in captivity can help conserve these beloved symbols of the Arabian Peninsula.

A female saker falcon guards her chicks—called eyases—in their nest overlooking the Mongolian plain. Genghis Khan is said to have kept hundreds of the birds for hunting. Today sakers are considered endangered because of habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade.
This story appears in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The blue light of dawn reveals the shadowed contours of the Arabian desert as Sheikh Butti bin Maktoum bin Juma al Maktoum and his son kneel in prayer. The velvet sand is cool, and the tracks from the night wanderings of a desert fox crisscross the area. Nearby, the silhouettes of 12 small pillars mark the foot of a dune, at the top of which a man is setting up a folding table to serve tea. On the horizon it’s possible to see the shimmer of the Dubai skyline, a place transformed from a tiny backwater into a hypermodern port city by the sheikh’s uncle, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum.

There, a cascade of concerns and obligations awaits Sheikh Butti—corporate board decisions, real estate deals, royal family matters, requests for counsel from across the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. But all of that is a world away. Here in the silent landscape of his ancient Bedouin forebears, the sheikh finds peace with his falcons.

It is October, and falconers in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are busy training their birds for hunting and the upcoming racing season. Each day Sheikh Butti (pronounced BOO-tee), his son Maktoum, and their retinue rise at four in the morning and drive more than an hour into the desert to train their birds before the scorching heat of the day.

As the sky brightens, I see that the 12 pillars are hooded falcons on perches, silently awaiting the day’s training. There are chocolate and cream peregrines, white speckled gyrfalcons, dusky brown sakers, and hybrids of different species. Together the group contains lineages that cut across Europe, Asia, and the wilds of the Arctic. They represent only a few of the hundreds of birds the sheikh owns, which arguably compose one of the most exquisite collections of falcons ever assembled. (Considering that falcons have been zealously collected throughout history by Assyrian rulers, Viking chiefs, Russian tsars, Mongol khans, and practically every English monarch from Alfred the Great to George III, this is indeed quite a claim. More about this history later.)

Pani, one of the sheikh’s aides, hands me a cup of tea and hustles to prepare the lure for the first trainee. “Good morning, Howard,” the sheikh calls out to the lanky, bald man in glasses standing next to me. Howard Waller, 57, is his falcon breeder, friend, and confidant. The sheikh’s voice is bright and full of enthusiasm, and the two men immediately spiral into a spirited, hopscotching discussion of falcon esoterica.

They discuss the birds arrayed before them and others in the sheikh’s several aviaries. They comment on the merits of quail and pigeon diets, the proper way to build muscle mass, the nuances of diseases such as aspergillosis and bumblefoot. They note the young birds that exhibit aggressive personalities and those that seem passive. They sprinkle in bits of gossip about acquisitions by other Dubai falconers and news from falconry communities in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. Almost like a long-married couple, they eagerly anticipate each other’s answers and communicate using a shorthand inscrutable to nearly everyone else: “The gray whose father was the one we hunted with two years ago.” “The gyr with the broken tail feather that we fixed.”

They speak of favorite birds: Delua, White Finger, Old Bedford, and of course, the late Hasheem—dear Hasheem—and the lineages they produced, each with its own genetic bundle of surprising color schemes and personality traits. And then there is the White One. Their voices vibrate with excitement when they mention the White One, a yearling that may be the most beautiful falcon either has ever seen.

It’s been this way each morning for the nearly two weeks the sheikh has graciously allowed photographer Brent Stirton and me to observe the training sessions. Before the first rays of sun creased the horizon, the two falconers would wander off into the dark desert, just the two of them, lost in conversation.

Over the past 20 years, Sheikh Butti and Howard have helped pioneer important changes in Arab falconry. Most notably, they breed and hand raise every bird they fly—a practice that was thought impossible before captive peregrine falcons were first successfully bred in 1942 by Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s falconer, Renz Waller (no relation to Howard). It’s also a practice Howard and Sheikh Butti believe can have a major impact on falcon conservation at a time when several species are facing threats from habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade. And though the vast majority of U.A.E. falconers now fly captive-bred birds, some traditional falconers in other parts of the Middle East still prefer wild birds captured after they’ve learned to catch prey on their own.

As soon as the sun becomes a soft orange ball on the horizon, the chitchat abruptly ends and the training begins in earnest. Maktoum, 27, wearing a heavy leather glove, gently takes one of the hooded falcons, a young peregrine, from its perch, gets into a Toyota four-by-four, and drives a few hundred yards away. Sheikh Butti holds what looks like a fishing pole with a rope tied to the tip and a quail wing tied to the end of the rope. He begins waving the pole, making wide, sweeping arcs with the fluttering wing.

In the distance Maktoum slips the leather hood off the falcon’s head and releases it. The bird beats its large, powerful wings and climbs high into the crisp air, immediately spots the lure, and flies toward it, its head following the arcs of the swinging wing. Sheikh Butti calls to it: “Hah!” The falcon swiftly gains altitude, banks hard, and dives on the lure, but at the last second, the sheikh jerks the wing away. “Hah!” calls the sheikh. The falcon seesaws awkwardly as it regroups. It passes overhead, and I can hear the soft whistle of its wings paddling the air. Its eyes—eight times as sharp as a human’s—are fixed like laser sights on the lure. It gains altitude and dives. The sheikh again pulls the lure at the last second.

Finally, on the third try, Sheikh Butti allows the bird to catch the wing and take it down onto the powdery sand. Pani quickly substitutes the lure for a quail breast, and the falcon begins stripping off the fresh meat. The sheikh gives explicit instructions for exactly how much to let the bird eat. Too much and the peregrine will get fat and slow; too little and it won’t gain muscle.

An Indian painting portrays Sultana Chand Bibi using raptors to hunt cranes. Throughout history powerful women have practiced falconry—from Russian tsarinas and English queens to Bavarian noblewomen.
An Indian painting portrays Sultana Chand Bibi using raptors to hunt cranes. Throughout history powerful women have practiced falconry—from Russian tsarinas and English queens to Bavarian noblewomen.

“That’s a young male,” Howard says. “It’s still figuring out how to hunt. The key is to not let it get frustrated. You want to make sure you let it catch the lure before it gives up.”

The sheikh and his son put each of the falcons through its paces. The older birds make the young male look amateurish by comparison. Maktoum takes them farther into the desert, releasing some from nearly a mile away. They rise effortlessly, as if impervious to gravity. Their flight paths are much more efficient and strategic, their wings flattening, flaring, cupping the air to twist and plunge in pursuit of the spinning lure. Like fighter pilots, some approach with the rising sun at their backs, using the glare to blind the “prey.” Others fly barely off the ground, approaching from behind the parked Toyotas, using them to block the prey’s field of vision before a final flash of speed.

Delua, a gray gyr (pronounced jer), even uses Brent as cover. Hunched on his knees in the sand, Brent is photographing Sheikh Butti when the falcon whips over his shoulder, a wing tip grazing his hair as she strikes the lure.

Sheikh Butti laughs. “They will knock you down,” he says. “It’s happened to me several times.”

It’s a visceral example of why falcons are such deadly hunters. In the wild, the gyr can surpass 60 miles an hour flying straight ahead. A diving peregrine can exceed 240 miles an hour, making it the fastest creature on the planet. At such velocities, even a bird weighing only a few pounds can deliver a violent blow.

“Like a lightning bolt with feathers,” Howard says.

Historians aren’t sure when humans first began capturing and training birds of prey to hunt animals they couldn’t kill with arrows or catch with snares. References in the ancient poem The Epic of Gilgamesh suggest that falconry existed in what is now Iraq as early as 4,000 years ago. Over centuries, the practice of catching and training falcons proliferated in cultures throughout the known world. King Tut was buried wearing a falcon pendant. The Greeks struck coins depicting Zeus with a falcon. One of the earliest Japanese falconers, a woman, wrote a treatise on the subject. Norse merchants traded gyrfalcons from Iceland throughout Europe, and the economy of the Dutch city Valkenswaard depended almost exclusively on the trade of falcons.

By the time Marco Polo encountered Kublai Khan in the 13th century, the Mongol ruler employed 60 managers to oversee 10,000 falconers. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor, King Frederick II, spent 30 years personally compiling an exhaustive scientific study of falconry that even now is regarded among the most authoritative tomes on the history and techniques of the sport.

But no region has a stronger claim to the practice than Arabia, where today more than half the world’s falconers reside. While falconry (which also includes hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey) was largely the sport of kings in Europe, it was a critical tool for survival in the Arabian Desert.

Bedouins would catch migrating falcons and train them to hunt game, such as houbara bustards and desert hares. Before the arrival of guns, the birds greatly increased the Bedouins’ ability to provide food for their families, and in the harsh desert environment, every ounce of protein was crucial. Falconry was so important to Arab culture by the advent of Islam that the Prophet Muhammad specifically mentions it in the Quran, declaring food caught by falcons to be clean for Muslims to eat.

But in the 20th century the rapid development of Dubai and the other emirates almost wiped out the practice in the U.A.E. The houbara declined precipitously as humans encroached on its habitat, and hunting the large bird eventually was banned. Only the wealthy could afford to keep falcons and travel abroad to hunt houbara in Central Asia and North Africa.

Then in the early 2000s, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum introduced falcon racing as a way to make falconry accessible to the average Emirati. The birds are timed as they chase a lure over a specified distance. The season, which lasts from December through January, is highlighted by the President’s Cup, a competition in which more than 2,000 falcons compete for nearly seven million dollars in prize money.

The impact of racing is evident all over Dubai, where falcon ownership has skyrocketed. Perches can be found in hotel lobbies and office buildings throughout the city. Falconers bring ailing birds to a falcon hospital and shop for their needs at a mall dedicated to the sport.

One afternoon, Howard and I visit the falcon mall. Swarms of customers, many carrying hooded birds on their gloved fists, peruse the offerings of vendors selling everything from falcon food (frozen pigeons and quail) and falcon vitamins to tiny transmitters for tracking lost birds and hand-dyed leather hoods from Spain and Morocco. There is even a store specializing in radio-controlled model airplanes painted to look like houbaras for young falcons to learn to chase.

The mall also has its own falcon clinic, where I meet a young man in a traditional long white dishdasha with a peregrine on his arm, his two young sons trailing behind him. “Is the falcon sick?” I ask. “No, he is getting a checkup,” the man says. “He is going to race!” one of the boys says. “He is going to win!” says his brother. The man beams proudly.

Howard and I walk over to a section of the mall where dealers sell live falcons, and Howard moves slowly among the perches, inspecting the hooded birds. There are peregrines and sakers, the traditional favorites of Saudi falconers, and a few tiny striped kestrels: starter birds. He asks the proprietors where the birds come from, and each vendor points to papers bearing official stamps showing the bird’s country of origin.

Howard nods in approval. “It’s a lot better now,” he says. He strokes the falcons’ breast feathers and inspects their feet. “These birds seem pretty healthy, not too stressed. I used to see a lot of birds in bad shape that had been smuggled in from Pakistan or from Russia, through Syria,” he says. “But the government has cracked down on that. Now each bird that comes in or out of the U.A.E. must have its own passport.”

The U.A.E.’s efforts notwithstanding, falcon smuggling remains a concern in many parts of the world. Conservationists report that saker and peregrine falcons are trapped during their migrations through Pakistan and smuggled to wealthy buyers in the Middle East. Gyrs from the Arctic regions of Russia are also poached. Of those species only the saker is currently listed as threatened or endangered, though there are reports that some populations of gyrs appear to be decreasing in parts of the wild. Conservationists are worried that the illegal trade, combined with shrinking falcon habitat—especially in the Arctic because of climate change—could imperil the birds’ long-term survival.

These concerns, Howard says, are a major reason Sheikh Butti is so committed to breeding falcons, an operation he recently expanded in Scotland. “You should come visit,” Howard says.

Howard is in a hurry because it’s feeding time and he’s got some 200 hungry falcons waiting for him. It’s late May, nearing the end of the breeding season, and we’re driving to Sheikh Butti’s falcon farm, situated among the verdant hills and rugged moors of coastal Scotland. As he navigates the narrow roads, Howard describes how as a boy in Rhodesia, he’d devoured every book about birds that he could get his hands on, and later after immigrating to South Africa, he had begun taking in raptors that had been injured or orphaned—peregrines, lanners, black eagles, African merlins, tiny little sparrow hawks (“fierce little songbird hunters”), even an owl (“the dumbest bird I ever worked with”). Over time he became a dedicated falconer.

It was on a trip to Dubai in 1998 when a friend introduced him to Sheikh Butti, who was intrigued that Howard thought he could breed and train falcons in the U.A.E. “All the veterinarians I talked to said it was impossible to breed falcons in the desert, let alone teach [captive-bred birds] to hunt there,” Howard says. A few other falconers in the U.A.E. were also attempting to breed but with limited success, and the sheikh and Howard set out to prove the experts wrong. During their first breeding season, they hatched more than 20 saker eggs and raised 15 to maturity. The next year they doubled the number.

As word of their success spread, local falconers began sending them cast-off birds—falcons deemed untrainable or those with diseases such as severe bumblefoot (a potentially fatal infection in the feet) or hopelessly mangled flight feathers. Howard refused to give up on any bird. He figured out their individual personalities one by one, carefully superglued broken wing feathers, and patiently treated the bumblefoot. (“Most falconers don’t understand it’s really about stress,” he says.) Several of the donated falcons became skilled hunters and joined the sheikh’s breeding population.

A few years ago, the sheikh and Howard decided to expand their operation with a second facility in Scotland, closer to the native climates of peregrines and gyrs, and near other high-quality falcon breeders with whom they could exchange genetic lines. The sheikh keeps several of the new birds each year to train for hunting and others to breed, gives some to family and friends, and sells the rest to other falconers.

We reach Howard’s house, which sits on a rise with a view of the North Sea on the far horizon. The hungry falcons are waiting, and the air echoes with their piercing screeches. We head to a small complex of buildings behind the house and enter one that holds a walk-in freezer filled with locally sourced quail and pigeon. Howard gathers a generous bucketful of breasts, and we visit dozens of rooms containing breeding pairs of peregrines and gyrs, each with a clutch of two or three nestlings. Howard puts the meat on a small shelf, and we watch the males fly over, pick up the meat, and take it to the females. The pair then take turns feeding the squawking nestlings.

Howard also breeds hybrids—part peregrine, part gyr—created by collecting sperm from the males and artificially inseminating females. “Gyrs are highly intelligent birds, much smarter than peregrines,” Howard says. “They can have diva personalities, but when you combine them with peregrines, you get a large, strong hunting bird that is easier to handle and more resistant to disease.”

In one of the rooms I spot a gyr the color of pure snow, without a speckle of brown or gray. It is the precious White One. For millennia, historians have expounded on the obsession with pure white gyrs. Ransoms for kidnapped nobles, overtures of international diplomacy, dowries for royal marriages have hinged on the special birds. During the Crusades, Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria refused the enormous sum of a thousand gold ducats from King Philip of France to return his pure white gyr, which had flown across the battle lines.

It’s not just the bird’s beauty that excites Howard and Sheikh Butti. The White One is proving to be a fearless, aggressive hunter. “She’s not just a show falcon,” Howard says. “It’s everything you dream about in a bird.”

I’ve seen news reports of wealthy sheikhs buying super falcons such as this for as much as $250,000, and I ask Howard how much the White One could sell for. “The media reports crazy prices,” he says, but few are accurate. “Those stories help fuel the black market,” he adds, incentivizing people to trap wild falcons. You might find a wealthy Middle Eastern falconer willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the White One, he allows, but Sheikh Butti would never sell her. To him and to Howard, the White One represents much more than just a trophy. She was born from the line of gyrs that stretches back to one of the lost-cause, problem falcons Howard was given in the late 1990s. She offers living proof that wild falcons aren’t better than those bred in captivity. The sheikh’s consistent success over the years hunting with his captive-bred falcons has prompted other royal falconers to seek out captive-bred birds. Some have invested in their own breeding programs. This marks an important trend, reasons Howard, one that has helped dampen the market for smuggled wild falcons.

Ultimately, Howard and the sheikh hope to release captive-bred gyrs into the wild to bolster their numbers in some parts of the Arctic that have seen a decline. It’s a practice that actually saved peregrines. By 1970, because of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, the peregrine falcon had all but disappeared in the United States. Tom Cade, an ornithologist and falconer, founded the Peregrine Fund and recruited falconers from across North America to help save the species. Their efforts included releasing 6,000 captive-bred falcons. Today the peregrine population is considered robust. “Eventually, we’d like to release into the wild most of the birds we breed,” Howard says.

After the feeding, Howard takes me to a building that holds imprints, or falcons he’s hatched from artificially inseminated eggs and is raising by hand. Over time, an imprint will recognize the person who feeds it as its parent. The room is filled with dozens of plastic crates holding imprints, some only days old, their pink flesh covered with wisps of down. Others are fat little fuzz balls insistently chirping at him to feed them. He takes a bowl of freshly ground pigeon and quail meat, hands me long steel tweezers, and shows me how to gently fill their gullets with the meat.

Once all the mouths are fed, we move to the incubator room. The walls are lined with elaborate charts tracking in punctilious detail the genetic lines and development of every falcon bred this season. Nearby, the season’s last dozen brown speckled gyr eggs sit under the warmth of infrared heat bulbs. Every day Howard and his wife, Victoria, use a special light to illuminate each egg and measure the chick’s development inside—a sort of falcon sonogram.

He picks up one egg that seems ready to hatch. There is a minuscule nick in the shell where the chick has tried to break through. “Sometimes they’re too weak. Breaking the shell is part of nature’s test for weeding out the weak ones,” Howard says.

He lightly taps the egg and holds it to my ear. Faintly, I hear “Cheep, cheep.” It is soft but unmistakable, like a feeble radio signal from another world. Howard, always a champion for the weak ones, gently begins peeling open the shell, and in seconds he’s holding a baby falcon. He dabs away the sticky yolk. The bird is mostly wet pink flesh and matted silver down. It struggles to lift its head, which seems far too big for its tiny body. It’s nearly impossible to imagine this helpless creature one day gliding across the sky like an overlord. Finally, the chick manages to open one globelike eye, and the newest gyrfalcon on the planet looks up at Howard Waller, its new father.

“Cheep,” it says.

Senior Editor Peter Gwin wrote about the Central African Republic for the May 2017 issue. Photographer Brent Stirton was named 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his photos depicting the rhino poaching crisis, published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum as Sheikh Butti's grandfather. He is actually Sheikh Butti's uncle.

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