Syria’s Trade of noble birds of prey: Flying high but not for long
Thanks to its sharp vision, solemn appearance and ability to fly high, in addition to its ferocious instinct, the noble bird of prey has lured the Arabs since ancient times. Thus, possessing and training this bird species to hunt was an ultimate goal and extreme pleasure for them.
“Noble birds of prey” is a description that includes a variety of falcons and shaheen falcon, characterized by the quality of not restricting to hunger as a motive to hunt, in addition to feeding only on what it catches alive and not on carrions.
Hunting and trading noble birds of prey has a special charm. Those who work in this profession and become attached to it will not be able to easily change it. Thus, what was once so abundant has become rare and hard to get today.
The pioneers of the profession in Syria are the people of the city of Rahiba in the eastern region of al-Qalamoun known as the “the capital of falcons”. As such, the locals of the city are famous for their fondness of owning and trading these species.
In the past, Rahiba was a market frequently visited by princes and wealthy people. However, its vast lands have been deserted by the birds of prey, as its numbers have decreased and these species became rare to see. Yet, the inhabitants of the city did not abandon their craft and kept pursuing their favourite birds everywhere even though the profession risks and difficulties have increased.
From past to present: The situation has changed
Hunting the noble birds of prey in Rahiba city has started at the beginning of the twentieth century, in order to meet the demands of the sheikhs of the Bedouin tribes bordering the area. The profession’s prosperity in the city was accompanied by the rise of the Gulf States and the accumulation of wealth there. As such, Rahiba became a destination for adventurous huntsmen. Hence, one of the pioneering hunters, Abu Borges al-sheikh, has transferred the hunted birds on a bicycle, according to anecdotes circulated among the locals.
As a hunt and trade centre, Rahiba’s population became famous and earned great profits, which motivated the locals to head to the mountains in order to hunt the precious birds. The trade activities and commercial relations in the city have grown, as the techniques of taking care of the birds have evolved to the extent of renting entire aircraft to transport the birds.
Competition has toughened and prices have risen, but the number of birds has not been able to keep up to the market’s demand, as it began to deteriorate rapidly in the middle of the last century, driving the profession’s fans to travel inside and outside Syria, following the birds of prey and catching them.
Ahmed Mohamed, a trader from Rahiba, told Enab Baladi that the main hunting locations were in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. However, the concentration of this kind of birds has shifted to Russia, then Pakistan, India, Mongolia, Siberia, and even to the Alps.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, new challenges have emerged. The most important of these difficulties was the European Union’s enactment of a series of laws to protect animals and birds threatened by extinction inside and outside its territories for migratory animals which migrate to other countries in the world.
Hunting and trading the noble birds of prey have become illegal in most countries. Adding to that, the increase of security unrest in Syria and the region made smuggling a part of the profession today.
In the countries covered by the protection laws, there are farms for hatching and breeding, which although produce less skilled hunter birds than their wild counterparts, offer a safer and less expensive solution for those who do not want to risk.
Mohamed indicated that talking about noble bird traders was synonymous with becoming wealthy. However, the situation has changed today, as the profit rates which used to reach 90 percent decreased to 5 percent.
Hunting season and the most precious prey
For those who have chosen this profession, there is no alternative to the beauty of the wild free “beast”, and there is no other choice for the hunters than to follow it despite the growing dangers.
According to Mohamed, the hunting season starts in Turkey at the beginning of the sixth month of the year when the Turkish shaheen falcon begins its journey, followed by the Mongolian falcon, whose hunting season lasts only for two months before the snow.
In Russia, the hunting period extends between the eighth and the second month of the year, due to convenient weather conditions. In Siberia, at the end of the tenth month, the snow becomes the hunter’s’ best friend as it drives the birds to leave the icy peaks of mountains and get closer to the ground.
Worldwide, the hunting season extends from the eighth to the first month of the year. Thus, hunters are no longer bound with the limited number of noble birds of prey in their lands, as these birds migrate to distant countries. As such, the number of hunted falcons of pray which used to hardly exceed 20 during one single season can be attained during a single week, in Mongolia, for example.
With the abundance of noble birds of prey in Mongolia, the Mongolian authorities provide expensive legal licenses for traders, at a cost of about $14.000 for the single bird. Thereof, an experienced trader should choose the bird he wants carefully as the costs of licensing and transporting may amount to $25.000.
The choice of the bird depends on several factors, mainly its qualities including shape, beauty, and color. The most expensive one is the white bird characterized by wide eyes large nostrils and talon.
The softness, length, and width of the birds feathers are also very important characteristics, in addition to the size and thickness of the wings, for these factors affect the birds hunting skills.
Mohamed believes that the increasing costs of this profession have pushed many professionals to switch to other businesses such as investing in al-Ruhaybah marble quarries, or opening shops.
The future of this career will revolve around complete transition to bird breeding rather than hunting, for it is more legitimate and about five times cheaper.
The impact of the business on al-Ruhaybah
“Strong friendships have developed between bird traders and Gulf princes, who voluntarily contributed into several projects in the town, such as the construction of al-Ruhaybah Hospital sponsored by Prince Hasher al-Maktoum and Mana Mosque, named after Mana Said al-Otaibi, Advisor to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in addition to the construction and rehabilitation of the al-Hijr archaeological Mosque and many other projects,” said Mohamed al-Shaykh during an interview with Enab Baladi, in which he described the benefits this profession had on his home town, al-Ruhaybah.
This relationship has contributed to a “real estate boom” sponsored by these princes offering hundreds of job opportunities for al-Ruhaybah city youth in the Gulf.
Profit by this trade was not restricted to the few families whose knowledge and experience were transferred, but extended to reach those who worked in the fields of services and real estate and provided capital to many others working in other fields.