World's largest falcon hospital cares for Emirati heritage
When a falcon in the Gulf Arab countries falls sick, the owners of the much-loved -- and expensive -- hunting bird know where to take it: The world's largest falcon hospital, in Abu Dhabi.
"It's their baby. They want the best for it," said hospital director Margit Muller, a German veterinarian with more than 25 years of experience in treating falcons.
"Sometimes when the falcons have an accident at night, the owners will sit there for hours into the early morning."
The birds are more than pets and the practice is more than a sport.
Falconry is an important part of the cultural desert heritage of Arabs of the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia going back thousands of years.
"The Bedouin used falcons to hunt meat... so the falcon was essential to ensure the survival of the Bedouin's family," said Muller. "(The birds) have always been considered like the children of the family and this remains until today."
With diving speeds exceeding 300km an hour, falcons can suffer serious injuries when they collide with prey, misjudge a landing or ingest infected meat.
The government-supported Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is the world's main centre for falcon medicine, research and training. Its subsidised prices mean people of all income levels can use its falcon care, Muller said.
"Nowadays, falconry is one of the very few opportunities for the former Bedouin to reconnect to their past," she said.
Falcons are recognised internationally as endangered and only captive-bred falcons can be legally owned in the United Arab Emirates.
Hunting in the United Arab Emirates outside a few special reserves is illegal, so owners train their birds using meat and then fly them to countries such as Pakistan, Morocco and the central Asian region during colder months.
The United Arab Emirates issues falcons passports and the birds travel with their owners in aeroplane cabins, sometimes dozens at a time for specific hunting trips.