When Angelique Engels moved from South Africa to the UAE three years ago, she had no idea she would be offered a job that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world: Training women to become falconers.
What does a professional falconer do?
In a nutshell, I train falcons. You can train falcons to do various things: either the competition or hunting or even do display work, which is working in close proximity to falcons. If you are in an area with limited space, you can train a falcon to fly around you and to chase after a lure - or towa - that you swing around. By doing this the falcon is in fairly close proximity to you because it’s trying to catch the lure and it gives people - guests or students - a chance to experience the flight of that falcon in great close proximity.
Currently, at the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club, I train women on how to become falconers, so I train falcons, but also women on how to handle the falcons, how to get the falcons hunting or how to get the falcons ready for competitions.
How did you become a falconer? What is your story?
I come from South Africa, where I grew up with a big passion for animals. At university I studied zoology and I just grew fonder of animals and training animals. Then I really got interested in birds of prey, in particular.
The very first time that I held a falcon in my hand, it was a peregrine falcon - in Arabic, it is called a teba. I still remember the day; it was pretty amazing to see the falcon up close, an overwhelming experience. I was just gently touching the falcon on his breast and on his feet, and as soon as I started interacting with the falcon it became more apparent that this is what I wanted to do, and this is what I was naturally good at. It’s something from a young age, I don’t quite understand where it came from, and it was just always there.
When I got the opportunity to come to the UAE I grabbed it with both hands because it’s the ultimate place to fly falcons. The falcon is such a big thing in the UAE, so deep into the heritage.
What brought you to the UAE?
I came here almost three years ago. I got a job that took me to Ras Al Khaimah, working with falcons, but this was display work for hotel guests. I worked with a nice team of falcons and some other birds of prey. It was good because I got to fly the falcons out in the desert, which was a new experience for me, and a different environment. Eventually, the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club got hold of me because they had started the ladies’ section, and this is my second season with the club.
Do you ever go hunting with the falcons?
We took a group of women from the ladies’ section hunting at the end of last season. We went houbara hunting and we caught a total of five houbara. The Club arranged for us to go hunting within the UAE.
It was a great bunch of ladies, both local and expats. It was towards the end of the season and everyone was becoming really good with falcons and falconry, and they could just show their skill, and they could see why we were doing all this training, what’s the end result that we were going for.
What falconry stories do the ladies share during meetings?
My colleague, Ayesha Al Mansoori, grew up with falcons. When she was four years old she started to fly falcons, which was really amazing. Some of the stories that she tells me from such a small age, like she wouldn’t go to school because she wanted to go fly falcons with her father and her brother, are pretty interesting. They are the Bedouin point of view on falconry, the way they dealt with situations out in the desert, with their falcons, like how to keep the falcon nice and cool or if the falcon caught a big houbara bustard, they had to cover it with sand, so the falcon wouldn’t go too crazy with the houbara. It’s all the little things that she taught me, and some of the really cool hunting flights that she’s had with her falcons.
Some of the other ladies have their own falcons and exercise them for racing and, of course, there are always some great stories and great flights they share with us. It might be a falcon that flew away and they got it back on the other side of the country. It’s just good to sit with them and share all these fun stories.
How popular is the ladies section?
The ladies section that Abu Dhabi Falconers Club started is the first in the history of the Middle East. It’s still very new, only two years old now. There is still a lot that we want to do, still a lot that we are dreaming about doing and there is still a lot happening that we didn’t even think about.
For instance, this year we [had] our own ladies falconry competition in February. It’s really exciting because nothing like this has ever happened before. 30 ladies took part in the competition, both locals and expats.
Last year we had 60 members and this season is still growing, because we haven’t reached the end of it yet, but we expect more numbers this time.
Anyone wanting to take part can contact me or Ayesha, and we invite them to come to the ladies section and we explain to them how it works. The membership is completely free and the classes are completely free. It’s one of the really nice things that the Club has done for us.
What do you like about this work?
It’s the first of its kind in the world, which is really cool. There’s no one I can call to ask advice about what to do, because there’s no job like this. If you have a problem, it’s unique. If you have something that happens that’s really good, it’s unique.
What is your favourite falcon?
I have a falcon that my boss brought over for me from Scotland. We named him Timothy; he is a gyr-teba. He’s got a white chest and a grey blue back, a really pretty boy, but he is a little bit on the crazy side. He flies really well, a lot of the ladies enjoy flying him, but he is a little bit unpredictable, especially while he’s flying, so you really have to watch him and you have to understand his body language.
One of the girls that we have, Mahawal, a gyr-shaheen, stole my heart from day one. She is a really big female; she used to participate in competitions and most likely will do so again. She is such a gentle bird, but when she flies, she has so much speed behind her. It is incredible.
When not working, how do you spend your free time?
I still fly falcons here, at the club. Especially during the season, I don’t really take off days. The only time I have an off day is if I don’t have any students or members that want to come back to the sections. Even then, I come and fly falcons by myself, which is nice because I reconnect with the falcons.
I can’t take one or two days off, because I still need to maintain the training with the falcons. The season in the UAE is so short, we have until maybe the end of March, and then it’s done, it’s summer time and we can’t fly the falcons anymore.
What happens in the summertime?
In the summertime the falcons go through a process called moulting, where they change their feathers. We have extremely big facilities, in which they can fly around freely. The facilities are fully air-conditioned, the falcons get fed as much as they want and are there for the entire summer, which is a nice long holiday for them.
Of course, I will take a little bit of a holiday myself, but last summer season my boss was generous enough to send me to Scotland to learn about falcon breeding for quite a few months. This year possibly the same thing will happen.
Can anyone become a falconer?
In my opinion, yes, if they are willing to. Of course, we cannot force anyone to be a falconer. We’ve seen some ladies do the course and towards the end of it they tell us they enjoyed it, but it’s not for them. They still come back, though, and they still support us. Even though they don’t want to fly the falcons, they want to support the people who do, which is really nice.
We also had students who really wanted to become falconers, and even if they struggled in the beginning, you can just see that persistence, that they really want to get this right, and they just practice and practice and practice.