Spanish falcons feed Arab passion for raptor hunting
A Falconry affair
In upper-class Gulf society, these swift-flighted hunters are worth a fortune, with buyers sometimes shelling out tens of thousands of euros per bird."The feathers must be completely whole," says Juan Antonio Sanchez, proudly showing off one of his falcons which is about to be shipped to Qatar.
On the perches are a stunning array of hybrids, these particular ones produced by crossing the gyr, the biggest and most elegant species of falcon, with the peregrine, which is the fastest.With their long, tapered wings, falcons have exceptional flight capabilities. The peregrine is known as the world's fastest animal, with diving speeds of up to 300 kph (186 mph)."For me, a peregrine is perfection," Dominguez enthuses.
Raising the little ones
After securing the falcons' claws with leather straps, they cover their eyes, then place them on perches where they will stay for the night. The silence and their inability to see have a calming effect, reducing stress levels before the journey.The next day they will be loaded onto a lorry then transported to Madrid airport where, after passing veterinary checks and other formalities, they will be put on a plane to Qatar."I'm always waiting for news, so I ring them up and ask: have they got there yet, are they OK? Give them something to eat and drink, things like that," smiles Sanchez, 49.
"It's like having a child."
Survival, not difficult
"When the falcons arrive in Qatar from Spain, they don't feel the change in climate quite so much," says Salim al-Humaidi, a Qatari national who buys falcons from across Europe every year. "That's why I prefer falcons from Spain."
According to Manuel Diego Pareja-Obregon, who heads the Spanish Falconry Association (AECCA), buyers from the Gulf tend to pay about 2,000 euros per falcon.But for specimens from a handful of breeding facilities known for supplying Gulf royalty and their families, the price tends to be in the tens of thousands, says Javier Ceballos, a Spanish falconry expert.
Such birds are raised in customised air-conditioned facilities where their trainers come and select the best specimens.
Birds of royalty
"They don't allow even one falcon with a broken feather back in, and if it happens, there's a sharp reprimand for the falconer who is handling them."Species that live in the wild in Spain, which are smaller and have brown plumage, are largely overlooked, he says."The few that were sold were for children!"
Spain counts around 400 breeders, many of whom started during the financial crisis by studying the art of breeding online in order to make a living off of their passion, explains Pareja-Obregon.Initially working with falcons in pest control at airports and public buildings, Sanchez ended up by raising his own raptors in a business which brings in about 60 percent of his income.
Tradition since time immemorial
Today, hunting with raptors, which has been recognised on UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage, is a sport practised by just over 3,000 people in Spain, making it the European country where falconry is most deeply rooted.
Today such birds of prey are used more for racing -- against the clock or in pursuit of a remote-controlled robot "prey" -- drawing criticism from purists.Although possessing a falcon is an ostentatious sign of wealth, the owners often lose interest in an individual bird after about a year, heading back to the market in search of a new champion.And this has provided a lucrative source of income for Spanish breeders that is showing little sign of letting up.