Hospital wing

Steeped in cultural significance, UAE national bird the falcon is one of the most pampered creatures on the planet – so much so that it even has its own state-of-the-art health centre

Dubai has much to boast about: its fast-paced development from a desert to a metropolitan hub within a span of a few years; its diverse mix of nationalities; its fusion of fashion, cuisine and language; its record-breaking landmarks (Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall…); and – a fact that is perhaps not as widely reported – its keen concern for wildlife.

The UAE takes great pride in its traditions, customs and, by extension, its beloved animals. While camels, horses and salukis (the oldest known breed of domesticated dog) are important, one animal that stands a step higher is the falcon, UAE’s national bird. The image of a Saker falcon is engraved as a logo on all UAE passports and government departments and the feathered raptor is a valued representative of the Arab country – its symbol: pride and joy. These falcons are so greatly reasured that they are allotted the best in healthcare, and the rapidly developing branch of medicine, falcon medicine, is given special importance in local veterinarian practices.

Meet Dubai businessman Hamad Al Ghanem, an enthusiastic falconer and saluki breeder who is proud of his cultural bond with the species.

Dressed in the traditional ‘dishdashah’, Al Ghanem cuts an impressive figure as he puffs aromatic sheesha in an Arabic-themed outdoor lounge, while atop the wooden table perches a gorgeous female White Peregrine falcon named Sahab, her sharp eyes covered in a Dutch hood, or ‘burqa’ in Arabic, to keep her calm.

“In Arabia’s olden days,” he begins, “falconry was a survival method. Now the same thing is practised to keep those memories alive as a sport,” he explains between a puff and a sip of freshly-brewed Arabic tea.

Back in the days when Dubai was nothing more than a barren land, the Bedouins were dependent on falcons to bring home their daily meal. The bird’s loyal nature is what attracted Arabs to it. Nowadays, falconry is continued as a sport and enjoyed as a pastime where the birds are raised in captivity and specially trained to hunt game.

The father of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was also an avid falconer, and wrote lovingly about how the sport was reminiscent of “a time when we were close to nature and life was more simple”.

“I’ve been practicing falconry since childhood. It was part of our daily practice for food in old days. When I’m with my falcon, I feel proud. You get this feeling of success when you teach a falcon and it returns that by doing something for you, and you learn something from it,” he says.

He personally owns around 30 falcons of various breeds of both genders from Peregrine and Lanner falcons to Gyr and Saker falcons.

“Sadly, there is no place to release the birds in the city, which is why the government wants them to be in good hands. We have hospitals that specialise in falcons. The UAE has falcon hospitals that are like some of the very best international hospitals,” says Al Ghanem.

The Dubai Falcon Hospital (DFH) is one such centre dedicated to tending the wounded birds and nursing them back to tip-top shape. Founded by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 1983, the facility is known as the first specialist hospital for falcons in the Middle East. It is visited by 1,700 falcons annually who are pampered by a specialist team of international vets and technicians.

“Falcons are like a member of a family here,” says Dr Antonio Di Somma, a falconer and veterinarian who hails from Italy and has been directing veterinary activities at the hospital since 2001.

Vets at the hospital religiously follow the motto ‘Prevention is better than cure’, so falconers are urged to bring their prized possessions for regular health check-ups and vaccinations.

Di Somma notes that a typical day starts around 8am and “on average, 35 to 40 falcons are treated daily”. Common health problems among them are respiratory infections caused by bacteria and fungi, which weaken the birds and affect their hunting skills. In response to this, latest antifungal drugs are at hand to give the best medical care possible to sick falcons. Speaking about the cost of a falcon’s needs, Al Ghanem points out that birds are so well-loved that owners tend not to keep track of the amount of money lavished on them. “Anyone who owns a falcon will spend money on them. There’s no fixed number. We spend on health, on feeding, make sure they have comfortable areas to stay in and have people who look after them – it all counts. You cannot put a number on it because it is part of a passion where you spend money without thinking what you will gain out of it. It’s about giving more than you take.”

The hospital aims to add yet another first for the country as the most advanced hospital of its kind in the world once it completes its modernisation programme. The programme has been under works since 2001 with the hospital going through major redevelopment and expansion of clinical facilities to incorporate a new surgery room, a treatment ward, advanced diagnostic imaging suites and an in-house clinical-diagnostic laboratory.

To add to the list of achievements, the hospital’s vets have shared significant research findings on Avian Trichomoniasis (a disease that affects the upper digestive tract of young birds), Aspergillosis (a fungal infection) and falcon breeding on a worldwide basis. Their teams of veterinarians regularly interact with specialists in other laboratories and falcon hospitals to share and extract scientific knowledge to improve understanding of various diseases that affect falcons. Despite focusing on falcon healthcare, Di Somma says that the hospital also provides medical support to other wildlife in Dubai.

During the intensely hot summer months, Al Ghanem says that he keeps his birds indoors and takes care of them until it is cool enough to let them out again. “In the summer they don’t fly long distances so we keep them indoors and feed them. In a way, we look after them so they are strong and ready to hunt again during winter time. Their diet consists of whole pigeons, ducks and quails. They eat once or twice – morning and evening – depending on their weight and size.”

An initiative called the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme, set up in 1994 by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, aims to release the majestic birds of prey back into the wild to rejoin the population and record its migration patterns via satellite-tracking device.

“Falcons are very sharp; they hunt using their instincts even during their time with us. Whatever they catch when they hunt is their food. So we are assured they will be able to return to their homeland and thrive. We release them into the wild – their own territory – and they (instinctively) fly back to where they came from: Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Iran. And we are tracking them as a mission to follow their flight,” says Al Ghanem.

He points out that every owned falcon has a ringlet around each talon: one contains its owner’s details; the other includes information such as its date of birth, its breed and the name of the farm on which it was raised.

“In Europe and elsewhere, they use falcons as a way of getting a catch. But we don’t only use them for hunting. We want to be with them, sit with them in our majlis (sitting area) and in our own houses. Arabs invented the burqa (falcon hood) to keep them calm and for them to not be disturbed while we display them to our friends.”