Crown Prince’s lux­ury falcon cen­tre is a feather in Dubai’s cap

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - DANIEL SAN­DER­SON

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.”

Sheikh Ham­dan

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