Crown Prince’s luxury falcon centre is a feather in Dubai’s cap
As visitors enter Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed’s private falconry centre, 15 kilometres inland from Jumeirah Beach, they are immediately drawn to the dozens of trophies on display.
The success of the Dubai Crown Prince’s falcon breeding and training programme, it soon becomes clear, has little to do with chance.
From a mission-control centre where birds are trained to hunt in giant hangars, to the on-site hospital where vets might carry out sophisticated procedures on raptors, this is an aviary on steroids.
“My mind is blown, basically, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sarah Fangman, superintendent of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and part of a group of US wildlife experts given an exclusive tour of the facility with The National.
As one of the members of a US delegation of wildlife and nature professionals visiting
the UAE, Ms Fangman has a special focus on what Emiratis and Americans can learn from each other in the field of coral restoration.
“Some humans would love to get the care these falcons get,” she said. “They [Emiratis] clearly have such passion and commitment to these animals. It’s fascinating.”
Al Aseefa Falcon Centre has been operating for nearly two decades and has undergone constant restorations and improvements.
The huge hangars where the birds are trained are 500 metres long. Areas are separated by vast partitions, which can be opened at the touch of an iPad. But the doors are not the only thing controlled remotely.
“Everything is here, in my control,” said Saif Alfalasi, manager of the falcon centre, while brandishing his tablet.
Conditions at the centre can be varied to mimic a Russian winter, a milder European climate and the UAE’s warmer temperatures, during the training process.
“All my work I do from the outside, on cameras. We have everything we need to help them [the falcons] reach a very good condition,” Mr Alfalasi said.
The centre looks like something out of Nasa mission control. Giant screens display the seven rooms where birds rest, while eight other monitors beam back images from the hangers in which they train.
Mr Alfalasi’s iPad also controls the lights, allowing him to replicate sunrise and sunset, as well as bird and storm sounds that can be also played into the hangars.
He can even change humidity levels and make it rain. Highup perches for the falcons spring out of the walls at the touch of a button.
A touch of a screen instructs a projector to beam “shadows” replicating the falcons’ prey on to the sandy floor. For a few weeks, Mr Alfalasi said, the birds will attempt to “catch” the shadows, “like children playing a game”.
Later on, he said, they will ignore them, having learnt to recognise shade. The process helps ensure the birds do not become distracted during their races.
On Wednesday, when The National toured the centre, there were no falcons on show as it is breeding season.
But in June, hundreds will arrive for their “hack” – a training method designed to help the young reach their potential by teaching them to hunt independently.
The progress of individual birds is closely monitored.
“I see everything and we write notes every day,” Mr Alfalasi said.
At hack’s end, the best birds will be kept for racing and breeding, while others will be given to other enthusiasts.
The whole programme is overseen by wildlife enthusiLove ast Sheikh Hamdan, who, Mr Alfalasi revealed, is a hands-on boss.
“Sheikh Hamdan is very busy but he loves to take time for horses, camels and falcons,” he said.
“He follows what is going on very closely and gives us good ideas to make our place No 1.
“This is his passion and it is very important to him. He doesn’t just build it and leave it. He comes, sees what he likes and thinks of more things to improve it.”
The reception to the centre’s on-site hospital looks like an upmarket doctors’ surgery, with several pictures of Sheikh Hamdan and some of his falcons hanging on the walls.
Each bird has its own set of medical notes.
In an operating theatre, two are given endoscopies; these are carried out if there are signs that something with a falcon is amiss and blood tests, analysed in the centre’s own lab, fail to diagnose the problem.
A vet gives the group of Americans a commentary on the insides of an anaesthetised falcon with an infection.
There is also an X-ray centre, single rooms for recovering birds and on-site breeding facilities for houbara, which the falcons hunt.
“It’s wonderful to see the commitment that they’ve made to these birds and the very high level of care that the birds receive,” said Christopher Dold, chief zoological officer at SeaWorld and another member of the delegation.
“Culturally, it’s really interesting to see the different level of animal care from the US. Certainly, we have falconry [in the US], but not to this level and not with the same historic prestige.
“The most extraordinary thing is the level of care and attention these birds get.”