Dubai: This winter, Emirati falconers are converging every morning at Dubai’s Al Ruwayyah desert area to flex their falcons and compete at Fazza Championship for Falconry, which is now on its 19th year and organised by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre (HHC).
Falconry, known locally as ‘kanas’ (Arabic word for hunting), takes its roots to over 2,000 years ago when it was practised by the Bedouins in the wider Arabian Peninsula as a tool for hunting. “In the UAE, a couple of decades ago, breeding falcons was only a hobby for locals but now, under the support of Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, falconry has become a major heritage sport with lucrative prizes at stake,” Suad Ibrahim Darwish, Director of Championships at HHC, told Gulf News over the weekend.
The sport of falconry has become an integral part of the UAE’s intangible culture and heritage. Emiratis, however, vie not only to have the right of owning the fastest falcon but also to get a piece of the major prizes. “The total prize this season at Fazza Championship for Falconry is Dh47 million, distributed across 177 races,” noted Rashid Bin Markhan, deputy CEO of HHC.
Falcons are the world’s fastest birds, with top diving speed during flight reaching up to 380km per hour. During the race, falcons fly one by one at a distance of 400 metres, chasing the lure (telwah in Arabic). Top birds can cover the 400-metre distance between 17 to 18 seconds and in a flash, winners bring home big prizes.
In the Sheikhs Category, the prizes are Dh250,000 for first place; Dh100,000 for second and Dh50,000 for third. There are also races that fetch Dh150,000 for first place; Dh50,000 for second Dh30,000 for third while fourth place will get Dh20,000; Dh10,000 for fifth, and Dh5,000 for sixth to tenth places. Junior falconers, as young as five years old also compete, accompanied by their fathers, and stand a chance to win as much as such as Dh100,000 for first place, Dh30,000 for second and Dh20,000 for third place.
“Modern falconry is as challenging and interesting as horse racing,” noted Khalifa bin Mejren, team leader of perennial champions Team F3. He noted falcons are broadly separated by age: Farkh or those under one year old and Jirnas (over one old), and each category has races for Saker (Falcon) and Shaheen (Peregrine). Races are also divided into subcategories based on the size, weight, feather colours, speed and falcons’ ability to fly. There are races for purebreds, hybrids, younger and older falcons or Pure Jeer Jirnas, Pure Jeer Farkh, Jeer Shaheen, Jeer Farkh and Jeer Garmousha.
Bin Mejren also commented the level of competition has grown tougher over the years. “In the past, the time difference between the birds could be over one second or more. But today, with the help of digital timers, falcons are separated by as close as a thousandth of a second. This shows the strength of competition,” he added.
The number of birds registered for the race have also increased exponentially. According to HHC, there were 500 falcons that participated in the first year of the falconry championship but last year over 5,000 birds from across the country and the GCC that took part in various races.
“Participating in the falconry championship requires lot of training and preparation,” said bin Mejren, adding: “We have around 30 people in our team, looking after the birds and our team preparation always lead to our strong finish.”
On Day 2 of the Sheikhs Category, bin Mejren’s Team F3 set a record in the championship. Team F3’s falcon named ‘Aryon’ set a record 16.599 seconds en route to a first place finish in the Jeer race. It was closely followed by Al Dhafra team’s ‘150’ falcon that clocked in 16.634 seconds in second place, while Al Tair’s T54 finished third with a time of 16.701 seconds.
Emirati teenager Rashid Al Marri, 19, said falconry is not an easy sport. “It requires perseverance, careful planning and a great deal of patience to train the birds,” said Al Marri, adding: “But we always have valuable lessons passed down from our forefathers to preserve and have deep appreciation for the sport.
He continued: “My older brother and I first started training falcons four years ago. We have our own farm and my older brother passed on his love for falcons to me. I also have friends who helped me train my birds and I assist my younger brother, Ateej, in training his birds that will participate in the upcoming Juniors Category.”
The Al Marri brothers would usually start training their birds at daybreak. They would go to the desert and teach their falcons how to swoop down and attack a feathered training lure that is tied to a string. As the falcon swoops to catch its prey, the trainer tags it away until the hunting bird learns to catch its prey.
Rashid said: “It requires a lot of patience on the part of the falconer who must be fully aware of the falcon’s capability and needs. Becoming a good falconer lies in having a good knowledge of the bird. This means you have to be one with your falcon. Just by looking at the eyes, you will know if it is hungry or thirsty, sick or healthy, and, more importantly, if it’s ready for training and racing.”
“Compared to more experienced falconers, we are still new in the sport but we patiently train our birds regularly for hours every day. We may not be able to enjoy a podium finish yet but we are confident that in due time we will be able to develop winning falcons because we are diligent in training them,” he added.