This was not the Coopers’ first time in the UAE. In 1975 John was invited by the first President of the Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan, to examine his Highness’s falcons (hawks) and to advise on their veterinary needs. John had been studying hawk diseases since he was a veterinary student and had written several papers about this topic in the scientific and lay literature.
A year later, in December 1976, an international meeting took place in the UAE. This was the "International Conference on Falconry and Conservation" and John was amongst those from Britain who were invited to attend and to lecture. John’s paper, entitled “Health and diseases in hawks”, attracted considerable attention from his Arab hosts and it stimulated interest in establishing a bird of prey hospital in the Emirates. In the late 1980s John was appointed to the international Advisory Committee of the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) in Abu Dhabi (the largest of the emirates and the capital) and for some years he paid regular advisory visits, with Margaret as a companion and fellow lecturer on one of the later trips.
In 1995, following the Coopers’ eventful but traumatic two years in Rwanda working with the mountain gorillas, the Coopers moved to Abu Dhabi so that John could take up the post of Programme Manager at NARC. They lived for 15 months a purpose-built, air-conditioned, facility in the middle of the desert, surrounded by sand.
Twenty-one years elapsed before John and Margaret were back in the Gulf for the 2017 Falconry Festival. They were part of a group of guests selected from participants at the International Conference on Falconry and Conservation in 1976, 41 years previously. A simple calculation will lead to the fact that those in the group were in their vintage years. The Emiratis must have been rather nervous as at one stage the group was accompanied by a doctor, an ambulance was hidden behind a sand dune and the group’s drivers were told “strictly no dune-bashing”!
The Coopers’ week there was divided between two locations. They started their time in Al Ain as guests at a formal Bedouin Arab reception, hosted by the Crown Prince, followed by an evening meal on carpets laid on the sand as guests of HE Mohammed al Bowardi, Minister of Defence, whom the Coopers knew well from their time in the UAE in 1995-96.
The next morning the group travelled to the Ail Ain Zoo where they spent the morning attending a session organised by the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF), in collaboration with New York University, Abu Dhabi. The lectures covered a range of topics relevant to falconry and its influence on culture, with papers for Austria, Norway, USA, Mongolia, UAE, Japan and Belgium, covering aspects of the falconry world and its links with human heritage. After lunch they went out to the desert for an afternoon. The sand dunes were beautiful and John and Margaret found tracks of small animals. They watched trained falcons fly.
They returned to Abu Dhabi by bus, passing beautiful red sand dunes and having a chance to see along the highways the effects of planting, including date palms, and irrigation.
The focus of the week was the “festival”, officially termed the “4th International Festival of Falconry” and described in the coloured brochure as “The largest falconry gathering in the world”. With 700 participants from 90 countries it was certainly a very international and colourful event. Many of the tents that made up the festival were attractively decorated, with displays of falconry, birds of prey and conservation literature and equipment – and many live birds.
Those manning the displays were in many cases in national or traditional dress. One tent depicted the work of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which was established in 1999; the staff knew of John’s work on the diseases of raptors and the Coopers presented to them one of the books about birds that they published a few years ago. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) was the first public bird of prey hospital in the UAE and is now described as “the largest falcon hospital world-wide” with a well-established loyal patient base, not only in the UAE but also in e adjacent countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. It boasts hospital wards for more than 250 in-patients and has dedicated ophthalmology and avian pox units as well as sophisticated facilities and equipment for imaging and endoscopy. In recent years the ADFH has diversified its activities and is now involved not only with other species of bird, such as parrots and poultry, but also such activities as the veterinary care of “rescue” dogs and cats.
The Coopers’ week in the UAE was most enjoyable and memorable and, they were entertained lavishly and generously by their Emirati hosts. Memories included falcons (many of them), tents, carpets, cardamon-flavoured coffee, tables laden with salads and giant dishes of lamb, camel and goat – mostly eaten out-of-doors in comfortable November temperatures.
One of the reasons for holding the "International Conference on Falconry and Conservation" in December 1976 was to address the decline in the 1960s and 1970s, throughout much of the world, of the peregrine and other birds of prey. This was largely attributable to the widespread use of chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides. Scientists who were either falconers themselves or sympathetic to the keeping and flying of hawks played a large part in the recovery programme for birds of prey, especially the peregrine falcon. It was those people who pioneered and perfected the captive breeding of many species. Falconers contributed greatly to our knowledge of bird of prey biology and ecology and to a better understanding of the health and welfare of raptors, both in captivity and in the wild. Their input was reflected in those who attended the festival in December 2017 and who had also participated in the first conference 41 years before. They included pioneers in captive-breeding of raptors (Professor Tom Cade, USA, Dr Joe Platt, USA, Dr Christian Saar, Germany and Dr Leonard Hurrell, UK), ecology and telemetry (Dr Robert Kenward, UK) and health and diseases (Professor Cooper). All were asked to share their knowledge at the 2017 conference with today’s young falconers.
Falconry remains a deeply-rooted intrinsic part of national life and cultural tradition in the Gulf States. For over four decades efforts have been made to encourage those who practise falconry to take a more active role in promoting protection and conservation of birds of prey, restoration of desert habitat and reintroduction of native species. Now UAE-based conservation programmes following these principles and capitalising on the knowledge and skills of falconers are assisting in the return of indigenous animals and plants and saving desert habitats. The festival in December 2017, with its international orientation, was another step towards catalysing such advances.
JEC/MEC 29th January 2018