Falconry: a worthy heritage?

At a meeting this week Unesco finally decided to include falconryon its list of the world's "intangible heritage". The decision marked the culmination of a five-year effort by the United Arab Emirates, supported by 10 other countries, to win international recognition for falconry and the video above was issued by Unesco to celebrate what is sometimes called the "noble" sport.

The idea behind "intangible heritage" is that it is not limited to ancient monuments and the like but, as the Unesco website explains, "encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally".

The UAE's campaign to have falconry included – which involved work by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), the Emirates Falconers Club and the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency among others – was certainly an example of effective lobbying, and falconry is certainly an ancient tradition in some parts of the world. But should it really be regarded as a treasured heritage?

I've quoted this before, but it's worth repeating. It comes from Charles Ferndale, a critic of falconry:

Arabian falconry has over the last 36 years (at least) been catastrophically damaging both to wild falcons and to the quarry favoured by Gulf Arab falconers (the houbara bustard and, to a lesser extent, curlew). 

As early as 1974, the high prices paid by newly-rich Gulf Arabs and their Asian and European sycophants (including huge British companies), led to many hundreds of people, in many countries, seeking to lift the eggs and chicks of wild falcons and to trap mature birds. 

… whatever wisdom and virtue the desert Arab falconry traditions ever had have long since been forgotten … 

True desert bedouin in the Egyptian desert, who for centuries used falcons to feed their families, no longer see any. In the 1970s they saw eight-foot-high piles of dead birds rotting in the sun – the results of various Gulf Arab hunting parties competing to see who could kill the most bustards. The hunters used four-wheeled drives, scores of falcons, radio communications, shotguns and automatic weapons to kill the poor, slow, clumsy, helpless bustard. Even those who kill wild animals for pleasure could not have called it sport: it was slaughter.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2010.