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Saturday 15 June 2019

Photo Essay

Speeding back

From to Dubai to Mongolia, a 200mph falcon is back in the skies

By Brent Stirton

The ancient practice of falconry is experiencing an international resurgence, especially through efforts in the Arab world. Falcons bred in captivity have helped to counter the trade in captured wild birds, including some species that are endangered.

The Arab world has been at the forefront of restoring populations of a bird known to exceed 200mph in its dives. Half a century ago falcons were severely threatened by chemicals such as DDT. Sheikh Butti Maktoum Bin Juma is the first UAE falconer and probably the first Arab to train and hunt with a captive-bred bird. He has altered perception about what was possible with captive breeding, the performance of his falcons helping to win the argument for the superiority of captive-bred hybrids and pure-bred falcons. He has used the master breeder Howard Waller to create a new class of falcons that have become the birds of choice in the Emirates.

Meanwhile, in Mongolia, the use of artificial nesting sites is a well-established technique used by conservationists to monitor, manage and aid the saker falcon population, which do not build their own nests. The falcons are under threat – harvested for the international falconry trade and facing electrocution from power lines. The aim of the conservationists is to support a sustainable falconry harvest while stabilising the declining population.

Across the world, there are remarkable signs that conservation work is bearing fruit.


Batbayar Bold, a member of the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Centre, examines an artificial saker falcon nest in central Mongolia. 

Boldbaatar Batjargal, a Mongolian master falconer, has a keen sense of Mongol history.  Ghengis Khan was said to have more than 500 falconers in his army.

Saker falcons that have been electrocuted on powerlines in Mongolia. At least 5,000 have died this way in the past five years.

Howard Waller, one of the world’s leading falcon breeders, and his daughter Jennifer take young falcons out on to a Scottish moor. Waller works for Sheikh Butti Maktoum Bin Juma.

Waller feeds falcon chicks with quail meat four times daily, imitating adult noises so they bond with him.  Peregrine falcons can dive at more than 200mph.

This male gyrfalcon views Howard as a mate and will ejaculate on his hat in mating season. Howard collects the semen for artificial inseminisation. 

Sheikh Butti Maktoum Bin Juma, a senior member of the Dubai Royal family, at his house in Dubai.

Sheikh Butti with some of his housing facilities for the birds, both air-conditioned indoor and outdoor arenas.

Elite gyrfalcons wait to be taken on a hunt in Uzbekistan inside Sheikh Butti’s home.

Passengers prepare to depart Dubai on a private flight for a falcon hunt in Uzbekistan.

A falcon hunting camp in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, UAE, which uses captive-bred houbara bustards as prey.

Rashid and Maktoum Al Maktoum head out with their gyr and saker falcons.

Captive-bred hybrid gyrfalcons sit inside special air-conditioned 4×4 vehicles outside Dubai.

Maktoum Maktoum, the son of Sheikh Butti, prepares his falcons in the desert outside Dubai.  Live prey is used to accustom the birds to killing and building a blood lust.

Sheikh Butti, right, prepares his falcons to hunt in Uzbekistan where he will hunt alongside other members of the royal family in a long-standing tradition.

Sheikh Butti train his falcons towards peak hunting condition outside Dubai.

Sheikh Butti  and his team lure falcons with prey in the early hours outside Dubai.

Sheikh Butti is up at dawn to train his birds.

Sheikh Butti trains his falcons in the desert outside Dubai.

Captive-bred gyr hybrid falcons, a new breed of super falcon, capture mallard ducks during training in the desert outside Dubai.

Falcons about to be trained in the Dubai desert on a windy day. These days make training difficult but build strength in the falcons.

Peter Bergh, co-owner of Royal Shaheen Falconry, working on the radio controlled aircraft that he helped to design. He can imitate the movements of the prey species and the falcons themselves.

Peter Bergh trains a new falcon with his son Henry in the desert outside Dubai. Bergh has developed a radio-controlled aircraft that tows a lure for training falcons.

Peter Bergh’s remote-controlled aircraft is used to train a new falcon.

Sheikh Butti  trains his falcons in the desert outside Dubai.

Rashid Al Maktoum with three live curlews that his falcon caught in the desert outside Sharjah.

Rashid and Maktoum Al Maktoum, from the Dubai royal family, hunting with their falcons at a camp outside Abu Dhabi that uses houbara bustards as prey.

A falcon hunting camp outside Abu Dhabi, which uses captive-bred houbara bustards, the preferred prey of Arab falconers across the region.

Houbara bustard chicks inside the research centre in Abu Dhabi. Bustards are bred to replenish depleted wild populations and are the primary prey for falconers.

Houbara bustard egg selection and maintenance at a research centre in Abu Dhabi.

More than 200 captive-bred houbara bustards are released into the Berga Sokur reserve in the deserts of Abu Dhabi.

Emirati falconers in Dubai walk past a mural depicting traditional Bedouin life in the desert with falcons. Falconry is now the sport of choice across the Arab world.

At the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, falcons are x-rayed, given endoscopies and having their throats checked for disease.

Inside the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the first of its kind when it opened in 1999.

Falconers from the Emirates Falconers Club outside the annual International Association of Falconry conference in Abu Dhabi.

Royal Shaheen falconer Esmerie Van Aarde, perfoms a falcon show for tourists from a hot air balloon at dawn in Dubai.

Swiss tourists on a tour with Royal Shaheen, a group specialising in falconry events in Dubai.

Sky Falconry in California is one of the few US falconry schools licensed to give people experience of working with falcons.

Falconry handler John Prucich, manages falcons, owls and buzzards on a photoshoot. Here he is  shooting a series of fantasy scenes near Seattle.

Fred Hamilton James,17, is seen with his red-tailed hawk, Misty, in the wilds of Wyoming. Misty was found trapped on a fence near his home.




Brent Stirton is a special correspondent for Getty Images, and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. He specialises in documentary work at the intersection of man and the environment. He also works regularly for Human Rights Watch and with the Environment Investigation Agency and LAGA, the first wildlife law-enforcement NGO in Africa, as well as the Gates and Clinton Foundation.



All Photographs Brent Stirton/Getty Images