DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Like his ancestors, Iraqi-born falcon trainer Abu Badr al-Anazi swings the carcass of a pigeon to attract a falcon released a few hundred meters (yards) away. The bird of prey arcs over the desert outskirts of Dubai before sinking its talons into the lure.
While the methods to develop top-quality hunting falcons date back to antiquity, its transition into a modern Middle Eastern passion has brought in microchip tagging and price tags that can run well over $10,000 for a prime bird.
The falconry season starts in November in the Persian Gulf states when the weather cools. In late afternoon and early mornings, the falconers — Emiratis, Syrians, Iraqis and others — drive into the desert outside Dubai in SUVs to train the birds for hunting and racing competitions organizing by the country's sheiks.
Each bird has a microchip inserted beneath its skin and a numbered ring fitted on its leg for identification.
Falconry has been part of the traditional life of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries. Bedouin have practiced it to hunt hare and houbara, a quail-like bird that is among the falcon's main prey in the wild. After the Gulf's oil boom, falconry turned into a more casual sport and hobby.
During the training session, one falconer removes the hood from the bird's eyes while another, in the distance, swings the lure — a dead pigeon or some meat — while calling the bird's name. If the bird catches the lure, it's rewarded with some meat. Later, the falconer uses a live pigeon to carry on the training.
This part is important for Islamic hunters as it teaches the falcon not to kill its prey immediately. In order for the hunters to be able to eat the prey in accordance with Muslim beliefs, it must still be alive when its throat is cut and blood is drained. Once properly trained, a falcon will hold a captured houbara without killing it.