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.

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.

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