In Qatar, you can buy falcons at a shop in the mall.
Condé Nast Traveller has an interesting photo essay illustrating the centrality of the sport of falconry to Arab culture in Qatar.
In the US, falconry is so buried under a preposterous and massively burdensome regulatory regime that only an infinitesimally small community of total fanatics can participate. (There are something like 4000 licensed falconers out of an American population of 300 million.) In the United States, you can go right out there and buy a horse any time you like and take him home, but not a falcon. Unlike horses, you see, raptors are sacred and they all really belong to our federal government and various international conservancy committees. You must have special permission at both the state and federal level to borrow one of their birds. You are required to take a federal exam, sign up for a multi-year apprenticeship under a licensed falconer, and open your home to federal inspection to even possess your first hawk, and your choice of falcon is restricted to only 2 (in some regions, 3) species until you achieve a more advanced license level.
Can you imagine a dog ownership regime that would require federal licensing and then would allow you only to own a chihuahua or a Golden Retriever until you had been a licensed dog for two years? Then you become a “general dog owner” and can own two dogs at the same time, including such more interesting breeds as poodles, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds. You would need to be licensed for five years before you could be a “master dog owner” and own three dogs at the same time or be permitted to possess the more exotic and desirable salukis, borzois, and Akitas.
It’s different in Arab countries, where falconry is a far more prominent and mainstream sporting activity.
The Library of Congress isn’t sure, but they think that they have a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipter cooperii) currently in residence in the main reading room. (You’d think there’d be a copy of Roger Tory Peterson in there somewhere.)
They also don’t know how to catch it.
The preferred method of reducing raptors to possession is a device called a bal-chatri, a small wood or metal cage covered with loops of monofilament (in the old days, horsehair). You place a pigeon in the cage, drop the cage on a reading room table, and go away. The hawk goes for the pigeon and gets his feet entangled in the loops. You return and there’s your hawk.
7:19 video of Golden Eagle(s?), Aquila chrysaetos, preying upon what appear to be Rupicapra pyrenaica, Izards or Pyrenaean chamois. A particularly effective hunting technique consists of snatching the goat-antelope off the cliff and simply dropping it.
The theory that bin Ladin is being sheltered by Iran is not impossible to believe, and stories of nefarious meetings between Middle Eastern sheikhs and terrorist leaders occurring in the desert at falconry camps has considerable romantic appeal.
The sole informant behind all of this however, is “one of the world’s foremost falconers:” a fellow named Alan Parrot (pronounced “Per -oh”), the son of a leading Bangor, Maine physician and Middlesex preppie, who ran off to the Middle East instead of attending college, where he learned Arabic, allegedly “served as the royal falconer for various Arab leaders for two decades,” and became a Sikh.
Despite his intimacy with various Middle Eastern ruling families, his chauffer-driven Mercedes, and the honor of having been admitted the inner circles of Arabic falconry, Parrot broke with his sponsors and employers to found a conservation organization devoted to a) enforcing international trade restrictions on the traffic in raptors, and b) banning captive breeding and use of captive bred falcons.
If falconers are to be permitted neither to purchase or use wild-caught birds or domestically-bred birds, it seems to me that this is bound to have a serious negative impact on falconry.
The most prominent falconers I know seem to be skeptical of Parrot’s claims to rank among the world’s foremost practitioners of the sport. With good reason, he has written no book on falconry that I’m aware of.
They know all about Parrot, and mention that in US falconry circles he is commonly referred to jocularly as “Hari Ha Ha,” in a take off of his adopted Sikh name: Hari Har Singh Khalsa (Note comments).
Bodio/Mullenix have big problems with the kinds of figures for falcon purchases being thrown around.
$5000 is HIGH these days (except possibly—the story goes—for four or five individual unusual—for reasons more superstitious than scientific—smuggled birds a year that seem to go to certain Arabian families again and again). And six figures would be an unlikely high figure for even these.
From his reputation in falconry circles and his extravagant personal claims, it seems only too evident that Mr. Parrot (or Mr. Khalsa) is not a very credible source.
In press accounts, for instance, he is described as a resident of Iran and of Kuwait, while this profile says he has lived in Hancock, Maine since 1991.
Last year, we learned on Huffington Post, that the ever intrepid Parrot was still hot on Osama’s trail:
Encouraged by president-elect Barack Obama’s statement on January 14, in an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, that his “preference obviously would be to capture or kill him [Bin Laden]”, Parrot sent a letter to the Rewards for Justice program at the State Department detailing his efforts to track Bin Laden and providing information of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Parrot also noted that he had discussed the matter with Iranian officials and that “a negotiated and political (i.e. not-military) solution is available” with the Iranian leadership. The letter was sent on January 20, but Parrot has yet to hear from Washington.
Parrot claims that he has negotiated with Iranian officials the transfer of bin Laden from Iran “to the custody of the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Saud al Faisal, whom I know personally,” he said.
Extravagant, messianic claims on the part of a drop-out claiming a personal mission to protect charismatic wildlife, over which he unilaterally asserts personal responsibility, while operating his own private “conservation organization” and soliciting contributions from concerned animal lovers, sound familiar? What we have here is essentially the Timothy Treadwell of falconry.
Falconing is a favorite sport in the Islamic world, and the most prized game of Middle Eastern falconers is the Houbara Bustard, Chlamydotis undulata, a large type of landfowl of the bustard family, which confusingly shares features with gallinacious birds (pheasants, partridges, chickens, turkeys), wading birds (plovers), and struthious birds (cassowaries and ostriches). The Houbara has a special claim to the affection of Arab hunters because its meat is believed to have aphrodisaical properties.
Houbara Hawking in connection with Islamic terrorist plots was the central theme of Charles McCarry’s sensational 2004 spy thriller (presumably wrapping up his Paul Christopher series) Old Boys.
[Osama bin Ladin] wakes each morning in a comfortable bed inside a guarded compound north of Tehran. He is surrounded by his wife and a few children. He keeps a low profile, is allowed limited travel and, in exchange for silence, is given a comfortable life under the protection of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The idea that Bin Laden is in Iran got a strong boost recently with the premiere of a documentary called “Feathered Cocaine.” In it, Alan Parrot, the film’s subject and one of the world’s foremost falconers, makes a case that Bin Laden, an avid falcon hunter, has been living comfortably in Iran since at least 2003 and continues to pursue the sport relatively freely. He is relaxed, healthy and, according to the film, very comfortable.
To make his case, Parrot, president of the Union for the Conservation of Raptors, took two Icelandic filmmakers, Om Marino Arnarson and Thorkell S. Hardarson, into the secretive world of falconers. It’s a world in which some birds can sell for over $1 million, and in which the elite of the Middle East conduct business in luxurious desert camps where money, politics and terror intermingle.
Parrot, who was once the chief falconer for the Shah of Iran and who has worked for the royal families of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, still has extensive contacts in Iran and the falcon world. One of those contacts, described as a warlord from the north of Iran and disguised in a balaclava, reveals in the film that he has met Bin Laden six times on hunting trips inside Iran since March 2003. He says the Al Qaeda leader is relaxed and healthy and so comfortable that “he travels with only four bodyguards.”
Their last confirmed meeting was in 2008, Parrot says. “There may have been more since then, but I haven’t talked to my source since we left Iran,” he said.
Parrot told FOX news.com that the extraordinary disclosure by the warlord, who supplies the falcon camps Bin Laden visits on hunting forays, was not done out of altruism. “One of my men saved his life and this was the repayment,” he said. “He was asked to talk. He wasn’t happy about it.”
To prove his case, Parrot said he managed to get the telemetry setting for the falcons Bin Laden was flying, and he provided them to the U.S. Government. “They could locate him to a one-square-mile area using those unique signals”’ he said. He says the government never contacted him to follow up.
Maj. Sean Turner, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. Military would not comment on the whereabouts of Bin Laden.
Parrot’s story is supported in the documentary by former CIA agent Robert Baer, an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East and of how the CIA is managed. Baer, the onetime Middle East operative on whom the movie Syriana is based, explains that while he was in the CIA, he used satellites to watch the camps and they proved to be one of the key ways Al Qaeda was funded. He underscored how important falconry is to the vastly wealthy, and how Parrot’s position gave him a unique lens on that world.
Parrot’s disclosures add another piece to a jigsaw puzzle that for years has fed suspicion that Bin Laden is living in Iran. Among the other clues are:
Iran accepted 35 Al Qaeda leaders after the fall of the Taliban, despite the schism between Al Qaeda’s Sunni roots and the Shiite regime in Iran.
In February 2009 the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions on several high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives working out of Iran and helping run the terror network.
In 2004 author Richard Miniter, in his book “Shadow War,” wrote that two former Iranian Intelligence agents told him they had seen Bin Laden in Iran in 2003.
In June 2003 the respected Italian newspaper Corre de la Sierra,quoting intelligence reports, reported that Bin Laden was in Iran and preparing new terror attacks.
Some analysts believe the reason Bin Laden switched from video to audiocassettes for his announcements was that he couldn’t find a place in Iran that matched the terrain of northern Pakistan.
In December 2009 it was widely reported that one of Bin Laden’s wives, six of his children and 11 grandchildren were living in a compound in Tehran. The living situation was made public after one of the daughters escaped the compound and sought asylum in the Saudi Embassy. It is in this compound, Parrot says, that Bin Laden has found sanctuary.
Parrot said Bin Laden was renowned as an avid falconer who captured most of the falcons around Kandahar to raise funds to support his terror efforts. Each spring wealthy Arabs from the Gulf would fill military cargo planes full of specially equipped Toyota Land Cruisers and other equipment and fly to the falcon camps in Afghanistan. “Usama would arrive and presented the falcons as gifts,” Parrot said. “In return, the wealthy princes would leave the cars and equipment with him when they left, giving Al Qaeda a considerable material advantage over others, including the Taliban.”
Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism expert at the White House through two administrations, has admitted in interviews and before the 9/11 Commission that on one of the three occasions the United States was able to place Bin Laden, he was in a falcon camp set up by falcon hunters from Dubai. The CIA requested a cruise missile strike against Bin Laden. Clarke said he stopped the government from firing at the camp because “it didn’t look like an Al Qaeda camp.”
Intriguing, isn’t it? But very knowledgeable falconers are skeptical, see my next posting.
The event was near the village of Bokonbayevo, some 186 miles east of the capital Bishkek, August 24, 2007. More then 20 hunters with dogs and eagles took part. The slideshow illustrates exhibitions of hunting with Taigans and Golden Eagles using domesticated wolves as the quarry. The Salburun (hunting) festival has been held annually since 1997.
Neil Everley of the Quorn with Golden Eagle/Steppe Eagle cross
As we noted last December, the infamous February 2005 Hunt Ban, enacted by Britain’s Labour Party as a gesture of class animosity and urban spite, banned hunting par force du chien (i.e., the traditional pursuit and reduction to possession of the quarry by a pack of hounds), but included certain loopholes: drag hunts (i.e., hunts in which the pack hunts an artificially created line of scent) are lawful; and hounds can be used to follow a scent and to flush out a fox, which may then be pursued by no more than two dogs, and ultimately shot or taken by means of falconry.
The strange consequence of this vile legislation has been a curious revival of falconry employing large raptors by several enterprising hunts. Last year, the Cheshire Hunt was seen taking to the field accompanied by a European Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo).
Hat tip to Steve Bodio. I’m less pessimistic than Steve’s correspondent Patrick, who evidently accompanied the link he sent Steve with prognostications of havoc.
Let’s see—amped up hounds, lots of people, a couple hundred horses, a panicked fox, and someone in a coat and tie handling a massive Golden Eagle cross in the middle of it all. Madness on stilts if you ask me! When the eagle is injured or killed, it will be described as an “accident” rather than planned stupidity.”
I’m sure some very interesting misadventures (and ones worth writing about!) will inevitably occur, but it’s all part of the game in the sporting field. And I’m rather pleased myself at the irony of the same detestable English Puritanism which nearly extinguished the ancient sport of falconry in the British Isles in the 17th century, inadvertently ushering it back in in the 21th century, and in a particularly colorful and grandiose form to boot.