Saudi Prince Sends His Falcons Flying (Inside an Airliner)
By now you’ve probably seen the photo of 80 falcons flying – not in the sky, but inside the coach section of an airliner. The falcons belong to a Saudi prince who was flying them to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
While it may seem rather bizarre to Westerners, it’s not unusual for Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar to allow these birds of prey to travel inside the cabins. In fact, the “Pets allowed in the passenger cabin” section of the Qatar website specifically mentions only two pets: service dogs … and falcons (the airline only allows six inside per flight).
Falcons in the Middle East are even issued special passports in an effort to prevent smuggling. Their passport ID numbers match numbers on bands they must each wear around one of their legs. The passports first became available in 2002. By 2013, they’d been issued to more than 28,000 falcons.
Why all this fuss over falcons? They are a big status symbol in the Middle East, especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where they’re the country’s national bird. They are pampered by their rich owners and probably receive better health care than some Americans. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is dedicated to state-of-the-art treatment of these birds (surprisingly, its director is a woman, Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller).
“The falcon has been integrated in the Bedouin’s family like a child, like a son or daughter,” Muller said. “They live with them in the living room, some sleep in the same bedroom. Like the owners, they have the same place in the car, so the falcon is a different kind of lifestyle here.”
But are these falcons really being pampered by being allowed to fly – er, sit – inside a commercial airplane’s cabin? It seems that having hoods over their eyes and their feet tied to a board, along with the engine noise and the air pressure changes during takeoffs and landings, would be super stressful for them.
Tom Whitehill had falcons as fellow passengers on a Qatar Airways flight he took in 2014. “They had hoods on, so they were quite calm and relaxed until we started to land and they started to flap their wings,” he told CNN.
Yet the flight may be the least stressful part of the falcons’ journey.
Falconry a ‘Living Human Heritage’
The ancient sport of falconry – “the taking of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which calls the sport “a living human heritage” – continues to be extremely popular in the Middle East.
Is this “living heritage” something that should be kept alive for future generations? Last year both the Humane Society International (HSI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said falconry was cruel.
The HSI praised the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) for defeating a Canadian proposal to legalize the international trade in wild-caught peregrine falcons. The IFAW expressed concern when a photo of a Chinese falconer won an iPhone Photography Award.
Falconry brings “enormous harm” to raptors, said Zhou Lei, a rehabilitator from the IFAW’s Beijing Raptor Rescue Center, in a press release. “Falconry requires cruel manipulations to render an eagle submissive,” Lei said. “For example, raptors in training are subject to constraints on activities, starvation, and sleep deprivation. Many raptors die in the process; the survivors, if any, often suffer from various diseases.”
Exclusive Racing Events
Falcons are also used in racing events, known as the exclusive “sport of sheiks” in the UAE, according to euronews. The top prize in one competition is 125,000 euros (about $135,000) and a brand-new Bentley (the price tags for these luxury vehicles are around $180,000 and up).
This year the UAE outlawed the ownership of wild animals like leopards and cheetahs. Could falcons be next? It’s highly unlikely. But no matter how well they’re treated by their owners, birds of prey should be able to fly free in the sky, not hooded and tied down in an airline cabin.
Photo credit: YouTube