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"Saving the Falcon from extinction"

The saker falcon, for long a symbol of courage and inspiration to the Arabian people, is currently threatened with extinction in its traditional breeding lands of China, Tibet, Soviet Union and Afghanistan by the widespread use of chemical pesticides.

High upon the peak of Jebel Soodah mountain in the Assir in southern Saudi Arabia, a remarkable experiment in falcon breeding, the personal project of Prince Khalid Al Faisal and Englishman Peter Whitehead, is set to turn aside this threat to these beautiful hunting birds.

Falconry is often referred to as the ‘sport of kings’. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s late King Faisal passed on his ancestral love of falcons to his son Khalid. Prince Khalid Al Faisal, now an acclaimed poet and painter, is today the Governor of the Assir and the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s own falcon breeding centre, one of the largest and most successful in the world.

The story of the centre’s inception and rapid development is a modern legend deserving a place in the annals of the kingdom’s great achievements. Indeed, the centre has already caught the attention of the international media and has been the subject of a number of television documentaries throughout Arabia.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern about the rapidly declining numbers of saker falcons, the legendary hunting falcon of the Middle East migrating through Saudi Arabia. Ten years ago 100 falcons a day could be counted on their migratory flight path along the Red Sea coast from Jeddah to Jizan.

However, extensive use of chemical pesticides in the Soviet Union, China, Tibet and Afghanistan, the breeding grounds of the sakers, is said to pose a possible threat of extinction.

Four years ago, Prince Khalid invited Peter Whitehead, and experienced falcon breeder to the Assir, to discuss the possibility of setting up a falcon breeding centre with the principal aim of saving the saker.

Fired by their instant rapport and a mutual love of falcons, the two men decided to take the plunge into an ambitious and unprecedented project. Within two months, the Falcon Centre at Al Soodah was conceived, planned and built with 30 aviaries ready for occupation.

In November 1982, Peter Whitehead brought his breeding falcons to Saudi Arabia and Prince Khalid acquired as many suitable sakers as possible. The following spring, two sakers and a number of peregrine falcons were bred at the centre and the project was under way.

The problem of breeding falcons in captivity are considerable if subsequently, they are to be returned to the wild. The way in which these problems have been tackled and overcome at the centre is quite remarkable.

The only successful method of breeding falcons in captivity hitherto, has been to allow a pair to breed naturally in a large aviary cut of from all human contact, where they and their young remain wild.

At the Al Soodah Falcon Centre, as soon as the chicks are old enough to feed themselves at three weeks, they are removed from the parents and placed in specially constructed training towers built at either end of the mountain site overlooking the heart-stopping 3,000 metre drop over the escarpment. The chicks are fed surreptitiously at night, and by day, they are free to explore their surroundings, gradually learning to soar and stoop in the thermals, gathering strength and skill for their ultimate need to spot and kill the prey.

By the time they are fully-fledged at seven weeks old, they have become ‘wild’ and are equipped for freedom and survival, or to be recaptured and trained for falconry. Only female falcons are caught and trained for hunting as they are bigger and stronger than the males.

The first two peregrine falcon females bred and trained at the centre were later taken to Pakistan, where, in grand style, they proved themselves equal to any wild caught falcon. They each caught without hesitation and with great skill a houbara bustard, a large, powerful turkey-like bird with long legs and strong wings which is three times as large as a falcon.

A new method of breeding falcons in captivity is by artificial insemination. This method has been modified and refined by Peter Whitehead and his colleagues at the falcon centre with remarkable success.

Training falcons in this way requires infinite patience and total dedication. As soon as the selected falcon chick hatches in its incubator, it is fed and reared exclusively by its human protector. Thus the phenomenon of ‘imprinting’ takes place as the bird, whether male of female, accepts its human surrogate parent as its sole provider and eventually, two years later, as its mate.

The intensive three-month ‘imprinting’ period is, in human terms, a bizarre time during which the trainer must think and behave like a bird. He must enact as closely as possible the courtship rituals of the falcon modified according to the gender of the bird. This involves him in an elaborate theatre of crouching, jumping, clucking, whistling and arm-flapping every time he enters the aviary to give or ‘receive’ food.

When they reach sexual maturity, the male birds are trained to copulate into a specially designed hat or shoe. The semen thus collected, can then be used to fertilise selected ‘imprinted’ females. By using this breeding programme, the centre has control over the genetic characteristics of the falcons they produce.

In addition to breeding top quality sakers, the centre has also produced some interesting hybrids. A female gyr/saker hybrid was presented by the Al Faisal Falcon Centre to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Na-hyan, President of the United Arab Emirates who is acknowledged as one of the finest falconers in Arabia.

Sheikh Zayed hunted with this falcon hybrid in Morocco and in a letter to Prince Khalid Al Faisal, he praised the incomparable skill and strength of the bird, the highest accolade to the selective breeding and rearing of falcons at the Al Soodah Centre.

Since its beginnings in 1982, the Al Faisal Centre has expanded to include 60 aviaries and had 180 falcons, 40 of which are trained for artificial insemination. The others, mostly sakers are kept for natural breeding.

In the near future, 100 falcons per year will be bred and every year, at least half of these will be released into the wild. In four years time, it is anticipated that sakers will be breeding in the mountains of Assir as they did many years ago. Breeding pairs of other falcon species such as gyr, peregrine and shaheen jebeli are also kept at the centre.

The falcons have voracious appetites and every week they eat 1,500 quail, 2,000 mice and 1,000 rats which are produced in a special factory nearby. It is doubtful if falcons would be able to breed successfully in captivity in any other part of the kingdom as the Assir is the only area with a suitable climate. Even at the height of summer, the temperature never rises above 30 degrees which is maximum to keep the birds healthy. In 1984, young peregrines were sent from Bahrain for ‘wild’ training on the towers. Later they were recaptured and returned to Bahrain for a successful hunting career.

What has grown out of Prince Khalid and Peter Whitehead’s love for the saker and his determination to help save the species, is a falcon breeding centre which is also a research centre.

The knowledge and expertise which they have gained in the past few years through close observation and meticulous recording of every aspect of the falcon’s development is acknowledged internationally. Already the falcon breeding centre has become an important element within the framework of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning wildlife conservation policies.

 

Patricia Abercrombie-Little

Middle East Expatriate

January 1988