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World Falconry Day and what it means to us in Kenya

The world will celebrate “World Falconry Day” on the 16 November 2021, eleven years to the day that UNESCO officially inscribed falconry on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on the 16th of November 2010, presided over by our then Minister of Culture.

As one of the only three remaining falconers in Kenya (East Africa as a whole) at that time, this was an unusual event for me, given that falconry, and even keeping rehabilitated or injured raptors, was not officially recognised, and permitted in Kenya.

Unlike many countries that consider falconry as part of their cultural heritage based on its longevity (and the USA is one of these), Kenya does have a claim to falconry that goes much further back than they, to the 6th or 7th Century. Buried in a tiny museum on our Kenyan coast, at Gedi, are some falconry bells widely acknowledged by experts because they cannot be anything else. This historically places falconry in Kenya as being very much older than in most countries, in fact on a par with those nations that firmly state that falconry is part of their ancient cultural heritage, like the UK for example.

Gedi was, at that time, an Arab trading coastal town with India and China (other nations that practiced falconry at that time), as well as the hinterland, and one may ponder what form it took in this melting pot of cultures. Back then remember that the UK and Western Europe were in the process of learning falconry from the very same aforementioned peoples. This cultural exchange is one of the principle rules recognised by UNESCO, for cultures are adopted and they do evolve in places where they did not originate. Here we step into the sensitive world of human cultural values and out of the world of wildlife conservation, but we are out of order to ignore it and it deserves official respect. Let’s look at something else human made; sport for example. Football coming some 1346 years later is Kenya’s National Sport. Kenyans are proud of its history, yet it is very much more foreign and ‘new’ than falconry.

With over a thousand years of history, plus its monumental global recognition in Nairobi in 2010, Kenya has placed falconry at some cultural forefront, no matter how awkward. It had a little bit to do with the fact that Kenya did have an exemplary falconry record through the 70s and 80s.

The day falconry was globally recognised, Nairobi, 16 Nov 2010.

Falconry can be split into two epochs; the pre-history time up to the medieval period and then, because of the invention of guns that could hit a flying bird, its collapse. The guns were now aimed at what people used to “aim” their hawks at (game birds), and the ‘guns’ believed that falcons and hawks, both trained and wild, were making a dent in their game bird populations, and so persecution of birds of prey began, ironically by the very sport that had taken over falconry.

In the background a few dedicated falconers persisted, some out on the Mongolian Steppes or Arab sands and others across Eurasia. The falconers were almost alone in asking the guns to stop the massacre, because it made no ecological sense. Around the beginning of the 19th century raptor conservation emerged, in the shape of concerned falconers. It is at this point that I would like to introduce you to the first recognised “modern” ornithologist, Emperor Frederick II von Hofenstaufen, whose book "De arte venandi cum avibus" I have on the shelf behind me (not the original for that lies looked deep underground in the Vatican Library in Rome). I regularly refer to this book, written around 1215-20, for tips on training, management, releasing, eye morphology and recently the GI tract. It is still relevant, as is most falconry experience in the raptor sciences of today.

Tim the Lanneret on a Yellowneck Spurfowl. NB this falcon was picked up in the centre of Nairobi as a fallen chick.

Between the two world wars falconry resurged briefly to be held down by WWII and after that it grew, slowly at first and then it boomed in the 1970s. Just prior to this renaissance period an extraordinary abundance of falconer/conservationist/scientists just happened to live and work in Kenya. Captain Charles Knight who lived in Kenya, was certainly one of the founders of the western-world re-emergence in falconry and raptor conservation. He flew Crowned Eagles, Martial Eagles and of course his famous Golden Eagle. He died here in Kenya in 1957. Before him other indomitable individuals passed through Kenya and wrote on falconry, including Colonel Richard Meinerthagen.

My father met Capt. Knight’s Golden Eagle, Mr. Ramshaw, as did many thousands, and truth be told a lot of those went on to become raptor enthusiasts, one of which was Leslie Brown, who also met Mr. Ramshaw. Leslie was the world’s foremost expert in eagles and lived here in Kenya. He too was a falconer, though a pretty lousy one at his own admission. Jack Mavrogordato, one of the world’s most famous falconer/authors passed through Kenya occasionally while tending to his position as Attorney-General of the Sudan, leaving some of his hawks at a mutual friend’s house. Doud Marrash, Mavro’s Sudanese protégé, a man I once corresponded with as a very old man in the 1980s, flew Lanners despite being nearly blind.

Grahame Dangerfield, Serengeti Warden 1969, with a rehab Lanner given to him by John Williams curator of birds Croydon Museum, Nairobi.

Closely following this era was Grahame Dangerfield (photo above), then a famous wildlife conservationist and TV personality, and John Savidge, warden of Ruaha National Park flying Lanners, African Hawk Eagles and Black Sparrowhawks. Felix Rodrigez de la Fuente, the world-famous Spanish wildlife cameraman/falconer/conservationist, also worked in Tanzania and Kenya with a focus on filming the Egyptian Vulture.

One must not forget John Cooper the foremost raptor vet in the world during the 1970s and author, Michael Woodford (both of the British Falconers Association), who both lived in Kenya. This list summarises a fair chunk of all active falconer/conservationists of the western world of the day. Suffice it to say they were profoundly important in the early genesis of conservation and research of raptors globally as well as in Kenya. They left a legacy.

A deliberately nostalgic photo showing a pointer on right flushing a spurfowl and a Black Sparrowhawk being cast at the rising spurfowl on the left. The golden age of falconry in Kenya (1976-2005). NB the hawk was a rehab with a broken wing.

In the late 1960s I was besotted as a tiny boy by a Lanner falcon sitting with jesses and hood on the leather glove of Grahame Dangerfield. Back then there could only have been a few dozen falconers in the UK, but their spill over into Africa was profoundly felt. Zimbabwe too was besotted at a similar time. Among them Ron Hartley was to become that country’s leading raptor biologist/falconer. Like the hundreds who were emerging into the world of falconry, we thought it inseparable from conservation.

In the next 2 decades falconry exploded, helped along by a few high-profile films of people with kestrels. The codes of conduct, rules and regulations, written and practical tests, and the step-by-step progression from novice apprenticeship to master, stemming from the Medieval era, takes longer than learning to fly a jet fighter. The experience ladder is something we wish would be adopted in all fields where human and raptor meet, such as in the rehab, veterinary and research worlds.

There was a rocky period, during the 1980s when wild falcons were being snatched from cliffs by a few bad people. Falconers then stopped this by exposing these bad people, and by large scale captive breeding. They strove to regain their lost image, defiled by the greed of a very few. Although this furore blew over 30 years ago, we in East Africa ask how it is that so many African raptors end up all over the world in bird shows and on falconer’s arms?

By the year 2013 it was estimated that in the UK alone, some 25,000 falconers, each holding one or more birds. There are many more falconers/bird show people today. It is considered sustainable, and since its recognition by UNESCO it is now admirable. We are not so sure that this is as ‘clean’ as it is made out to be and ask again how it is that so many African (East African especially) raptors end up abroad.

Back in the 1970s I, like so many, was inspired by the masters of the time, and I learned falconry from a few old books. Suddenly aged 16 I had a male Crowned Eagle with a broken wing to care for. 42 years later Rosy died of a snake bite. He had 11 young, all of which were trained, hunted and soft released (hacked out) in the falconry tradition. Some went on to breed in the wild. Few dispute that Rosy helped form the backbone of raptor awareness in Kenya from which emerged a research and conservation ethos. Rosy and Mr Ramshaw exemplified what falconry can do.

A captive bred male Crowned Eagle (Parents Rosy and Girl) after release in Tsavo West National Park. Falconry skills, carefully applied, led to captive breeding and Africa’s first successful release of a Crowned Eagle into the wild. Here he is wild and doing what wild Crowned Eagles do. He went on to pair with a wild female and breed in the wild. It was a huge achievement for Kenya raptor conservation.

Gone are the days in Africa where someone could keep a hawk, falcon or eagle and not ‘pay back’ through conservation and education initiatives. By ‘paying back’ I mean each and every falconer must actively contribute to raptor conservation. This includes monitoring, research, and fieldwork that is not always comfortable or glamorous, like climbing into remote places to save species. My former boss for many years, the late Dr. Tom Cade, was such a falconer, committed to conserving raptors, and it was through him, and others (mostly falconers), that the Peregrine Falcon and others were brought back from the verge of extinction. Pesticides and persecution killed them off, and it took falconer/scientists to set the standard for all future restoration projects.

Lanner aged 18 with two German Short Haired Pointers Athi Plains. NB this falcon was found inside an office building in Nairobi and taken to KSPCA, flown by a Dutch falconer before she was given to me. She had chronic rhinusitis and could never be released. Despite this she spent half her life outdoors flying free.

I have been lucky flying the finest of falcons, hawks and eagles in magnificent wild places in Kenya, but since then it has become difficult to do so. Pure falconry for just the fun of it doesn’t thrill me as once it did. I use it only for rehab, nothing more. I find much greater reward from watching a broken wild raptor recover and fly free once more, or a team of students ponder about the vast area an eagle pair requires to live, and how to protect them in tomorrow’s world. Among these ‘students’ were Nick Trent, Munir Virani, Mburu Chege, Corrine Kendall, Darcy Ogada, Martin Odino, Craig Sorely and more recently Shiv Kapila and Stratton Hatfield. They too have engaged others along the way, and in no time the ripple effect has formed a solid and rapidly growing group of raptor scientists and conservationists, not all of whom are falconers.

Pooh, a Eurasian Scops Owl at hack. Such tiny owls are still capable of being trained using falconry techniques. They don’t kill anything…but that is not the point. Had Pooh not been “trained” his management and release would have been very risky with a high mortality expectancy. About 75% of all our rehabs are not traditional “falconry” birds…but we use falconry to better their chances.

Our extraordinary high stance has been our saving grace, in placing raptor conservation first, and falconry only as a tool in the conservation management of raptors.

In parting, please note that the photos in this article show pictures of raptors that look like traditional falconry, but on inspection they are all rescued rehab birds, or birds bred from rehab birds, and all released into the wild where possible. Also note that these are old photos from an era when falconry and rehab in Kenya was permissible. In Kenya, the art of falconry is a management tool meant always to give back.

As World Falconry Day comes and goes, may we recognise the role falconry has played, and continues to play, in raptor conservation in Kenya, especially as it was inaugurated here in Nairobi eleven years ago.


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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

Understand - Protect - Restore

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