Expatriate who was denied keeper’s job at falcon research centre obtains doctorate in its study.

The falcon has always been regarded as a very uncommon and shy bird, and it is very rarely observed by amateur birdwatchers. “To observe falcons, one has to travel in an airplane and I flew 42 times around the world for the same purpose,” says an Indian zoologist who took up research on the birds of prey after being denied an opportunity to work closely with them.

The zoologist, Dr Zubair Medammal, has been doing research on falcons for the past 20 years and is now making a documentary on the raptor.

The documentary will be in English, Arabic and Malayalam, the mother tongue of the film maker, who teaches at a university in Kerala, India.

Dr Medammal has chosen “Biology and Behaviour of Falcons and Falconry in the Middle East” as the title of his documentary. During a recent visit to Dubai, Medammal told Khaleej Times that he got interested in falcons while travelling in Abu Dhabi in 1998. In Al Khazna, he saw the Falcon Research Hospital and applied for a job there.

After failing to secure employment, he decided to pursue research on the bird of prey, which is popular in the Gulf region. Though falcons are not native to the GCC or the Arab world, falconry is popular here because the region is cash-rich and the sport involves a lot of expenses, said Medammal.

“Falconry involves hunting using trained falcons. A good trained falcon can cost anywhere between $15,000 to a whopping $400,000.”

Falcons originated in Russia and parts of Pakistan, he said. During winter they migrate mainly from China to places like Jaisalmer in the Indian state of Rajasthan and also to the GCC region.

Bustards, the favourite and the main pray of falcons, also migrate during that time. The falcon is an aggressive bird and can attack and seriously injure a person who is not its owner and tries to take a hunted bustard away from it, said Medammal. Falcons can also hunt rabbits, hares, pigeons, small birds and even very small deer.

Endangered species

In the GCC region, falconry is most popular in the UAE, followed by Qatar, said Medammal. On an average, falcons live for 12 to 15 years. Falcons and bustards are endangered due to the use of illegal traps and pesticides in some farms.

Dr Medammal is the first and only Indian to get a doctorate in the study of falcons. He said he is also the only one who has recorded and made sonogram of 15 different vocalisations of various species of falcons.

“But it was not as easy a job as I thought,” he said. Since falcons fly and live at great heights, he said, it is very difficult to watch their movements and observe their behaviour.

Apart from the Gulf countries, Medammal has also visited Germany, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Iran as part of his research. He has received special training in artificial falcon-breeding from Stuttgart.

He said he had also spent months at Western Ghats in Kerala and took about six years to complete the research work

‘Protect falcons’

Dr Medammal called on the governments and wildlife conservation agencies to adopt effective measures to protect this prized bird from extinction. “About one-third of falcons die due to preying on birds exposed to pesticides. Few months back the new bird flu epidemic was feared to add to the threat of extinction of falcons, a symbol of force and courage.”

He especially warned the owners of falcons in the UAE of the serious ecological risks that falcons face, as their position is at the top of the biological pyramid. “Extra care should be taken while feeding falcons as many birds in various countries have died as a result of feeding on bird flu-affected feed and preying on infected birds.”

Arabs constitute one-third of the world’s falconers, he said. It is believed that Arabs have hunted with falcons for the past 2,000 years. Being the national bird and symbol of culture of most of the Middle East countries, falcons are accorded immense importance and exclusive hospitals with high facilities are set up for them.

“The Rulers of the UAE spend millions of dirhams every year to purchase falcons from Western countries like Germany and the U.K.,” he said. “It is the only bird which requires a passport to cross the border of a country.

“The UAE started this system in 2002 to stop smuggling falcons which have good market value.”

Falcons have uses other than hunting. Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, had been making use of falcons to protect it from birds that leave their droppings on top of the building, Medammal said.

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