Dubai: At 78, Emirati falconer Obeid Salim bin Shannah’s eyes are still as sharp as a falcon’s and his legs and arms are still strong enough to train champion birds.
Last week, the legendary falconer, who has over six decades of bird racing experience under his belt, finally clinched and added the elusive feather to his cap by wining in one of the races at the Fakhr Al Ajyal (Pride of Generations) Championship for Falconry held at Al Ruwwaya desert area in Dubai.
His falcon named Kahal clocked in 19.12 seconds in the falcon owners category for Qarmoosha Jirnas (falcons over one year old). Obeid won Dh80,000 and gained the huge admiration of falconers three times younger his age.
Obeid told Gulf News, through an interpreter, that he has been raring to win a race in Dubai organised by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center (HHC) in the past 18 years.
Obeid said he has won several competitions in Abu Dhabi and other emirates but he has never won any big prize in Dubai, including the Fazza Championship for Falconry.
“I always managed to land inside the Top 10 but never on top. My falcons were really fast but they missed the mark. But when the HHC opened another category, I made sure that I have an available bird for the race. And by the grace of God, I won first place for the first time in Dubai,” Obeid shared with pride.
Around 300 birds and 120 falconers have participated in the four-day Fakhr Al Ajyal Championship for Falconry, which saw competition in various categories, including juniors, sheikhs, general public, falcon owners and Al Noukhba (Elite).
Sharing his personal experience, Obeid recalled he started in falconry when he was a teenager. He received his first pair of falcons as gifts from Emirati sheikhs, whom he accompanied in various hunting expeditions and races abroad, including Iran, Pakistan and GCC countries.
“Falcons were used in olden times for hunting food. Then it became a popular heritage sport. Eventually, I bred and trained my own falcons and participated in various races.”
“There were not so many falconers when the competition was initiated by the HHC 18 years ago. Now everything is different and the level of competition is very tough – but, Alhamdulillah, I still won first place,” added a jubilant Obeid.
Asked about his secret to training champion falcons, Obeid shared: “It takes several months to train the falcons. The long hours of training with your bird can be very time consuming but you have to be prepared to spend time to build a strong relationship with your bird.”
Falcons are trained day and night so they can identify their owner’s voice; react quickly and fly as fast as possible to reach the lure. Falcons used in the competition are not from the wild that is why training is vital to improve their speed,” he added.
Obeid said he is not planning on hanging up his cap yet. “I will continue to breed and train falcons. I have with me a wealth of knowledge of the traditional sport and I am happy to see the younger generation who are keeping the spirit and excitement of falconry alive in the UAE,” he underlined.
Aside from being still active in falconry racing, Obeid is also passing on his wisdom to the next generation, including all his sevens sons, who are champion falconers themselves.
Falcons, known locally as Shaheen, are raptors and considered as the fastest-flying birds in the world that can dive up to 300 kilometres per hour to hunt their prey.
During the competition, falcons fly one at a time over a distance of 400 metres. Each bird would dash to a falconer who is vigorously brandishing a bait (telwah in Arabic), which is usually a pigeon wing, to lure the bird.
Rashid bin Merkhan, Deputy CEO of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center, said thousands of falcons join the falconry racing every year during the winter months.
Falconry, known locally as Al Qanas (hunting in English) originated in the Arabian Peninsula around 4,000 years ago as a tool for hunting food. People would capture falcons passing across the Arabian Peninsula at the start of winter and tame the birds and turn them into highly-skilled predators. Falcons (called Shaheen in Arabic) are considered as the fastest birds in the world that can dive up to 320 kms per hour to hunt their prey. Nowadays, the birds are no longer used for hunting but falconry has been preserved as a heritage sport. Competitions are broadly separated into Farkh (for falcons under one year of age) and Jirnas (over one year), and each category has races for the Saqr (male) and Shaheen (female)
Fast facts about falcons
Did you know that falcons are the only animals in the UAE that are legally allowed to travel inside planes? But they can only travel in business and first class.
Falcons also have access to medical care. There are at least two speciality hospitals in the UAE– the Dubai Falcon Hospital and Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.