Falconry, a Southern African Heritage in the Making
Falconry, a Southern African Heritage in the Making
by Dr A.P.F. Lombard
Near the centre of Zimbabwe, close to the town of Masvingo, exists a sprawling ruined city built of dressed but un-mortared granite stones, known as “Great Zimbabwe”; its purpose and origins lost in the mists of time. It was in the Site Museum of these ruins that I found, several years ago, a metal object identified as an Arab Falconry Bell. I have been unable to trace the provenance of this object but it is fascinating to speculate that, at some time in the distant past, a falconer visited this city where he left, lost or gave away a bell, thus leaving tantalizing evidence of his presence. If this were the case, many centuries would pass before falconry was again practiced in the region.
In September 2005, I was privileged to attend a conference in Abu Dhabi, to present falconry as an “Intangible World Heritage Activity” to the Director of Cultural Heritage of UNESCO. The purpose of my invitation was to present The Falconry Heritage of Southern Africa. This appeared a somewhat daunting task as I would stand before nations that have a falconry history which stretches back over thousands of years and state my case. This caused me to examine the history and practice of falconry in Southern Africa and I came to the realization that we do have a falconry heritage which we should value and cherish.
Falconry is integral to the heritage of diverse peoples inhabiting Asia, the Middle East and Europe, where it has been practiced for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Falconry was not practiced in Southern Africa, within recorded history, until immediately before the Second World War. At this time, falconry was enjoying the start of a renaissance in Western Europe. It was settlers from this region who imported it to Southern Africa. I have identified three distinct “generations” of falconers in the Southern African context:
The First Generation spans the years 1945 to 1965. These were the first falconers who brought knowledge of falconry to the region, settling in different areas and gaining experience with indigenous birds.
The Second Generation spans the years 1966 to 1985. These falconers learnt the art from first generation falconers and consolidated the practice. They formed the regional falconry clubs, including the Zimbabwe Falconry Club, The Natal Falconry Club and the Transvaal Falconry Club. They started the process of dealing with legislation and falconry “policies”. They became involved with research, conservation issues and the captive breeding of falconry birds.
The Third Generation spans the years 1986 to 2006, and is represented by the 200 South African falconers and the 35 Zimbabwean falconers that exist today. Established falconry policies, negotiated between the conservation authorities and falconers, exist in both these countries. Falconry is currently prohibited in Namibia and there is no policy regarding falconry in any of the other countries in the region, although falconry has been practiced sporadically, by a very small number of individuals in Botswana, over many years.
What are the characteristics of Southern African falconry? Falconers in Southern Africa often come from a naturalist, rather than a hunting background. We see falconry as a minimally consumptive sustainable use activity which promotes the conservation of both raptors and quarry species. Indeed, falconry is an activity that well fits the concepts of the Convention of Biodiversity that envisage the extension of conservation through the principle of sustainable use.
Falconers in Southern Africa enjoy a small harvest of wild raptors for use in falconry, based on a negotiated quota. This process encourages their involvement in conservation and population monitoring activities and reduces the need for trade in raptors. It also stimulates the use of indigenous birds, rather than exotic or hybrid raptors. In terms of the negotiated policies, the falconers are self-regulating, so reducing the administrative burden on the conservation authorities. The administration of the sport is performed by the regional falconry clubs. An apprentice system has been established and there is a grading system that determines the type of birds that a falconer may fly, dependent on his experience.
Falconry is practiced with “longwings” including Lanner and African Peregrine Falcons and with “shortwings” which include a variety of Sparrowhawks and Goshawks, the dramatic Black Sparrowhawk is probably the flagship species of our region. In terms of feathered quarry we are spoilt for choice. Guinea fowl, a variety of spur-fowl species and a variety of duck species are hunted. Our champagne falconry is to be had under the big- skies of the Highveld grasslands where Greywing, Redwing and Orange River Francolin are hunted.
Falconers in the region participate actively in scientific research. The late Ron Hartley, of Zimbabwe, set the tone in this regard with a prodigious 150 publications. The contribution from others in South Africa is less well recognized as many contributors are scientists first, and falconers second, but this amounts to an impressive bibliography. Falconers contribute to a wide range of conservation-related activities. This involvement has been recognized and encouraged. We are currently in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bird of Prey Working Group of The Endangered Wildlife Trust.
Over the years Falconers in Southern Africa have had to counter a number of threats and challenges from a variety of quarters. These have included Scientists, Conservationists, Legislators, Animal Rightists and the purely ill-informed. We have dealt with these by keeping our house in order and engaging with our critics when-ever possible. Our present acceptance is proof of the success of this policy. To our amazement, our latest challenge comes from an unexpected quarter. Prof Gerhard Verdoorn, Director of BirdLife South Africa, has a regular column in “SA Wild en Jagter”. In the October 2005 edition he contributed an article on the Peregrine Falcon. This article contains a number of inaccuracies and within it he states:
“Some individuals in the falconry circles are constantly looking for nests to collect young from and this, as far as I am concerned, is unacceptable. There is nothing wrong with the principles of falconry but nest robbing for falconry will never be acceptable to conservationists.” This statement is patently untrue.
Firstly, Peregrine falcons are harvested in very small numbers by falconers, in accordance with negotiated sustainable quotas. In the year prior to his article, 3 Peregrines were taken from the wild. No nests were “robbed”. In fact, none of these were taken from a nest; all were free flying first year birds (known as passage birds) which have a particular attraction to falconers as they have already developed flying and hunting skills. Most of the peregrines required by falconers were produced by captive breeding and a surplus is released to the wild.
Secondly, whatever his personal views, it is untrue to state that a wild harvest is never acceptable to conservationists. Apart from the aspersion that he casts at the capable conservationists who have accepted this harvest in southern Africa and, indeed in other nations which include the USA and Ireland, we would like to ask him how he correlates this statement with the Convention on Biodiversity, that guides current conservation thought. Specifically how he correlates it with Articles 10 and 11 of that convention.
Our attempts to take him to task through the medium of that magazine have met with no response. A letter to the Chairman of the board of BirdLife South Africa has not been given the courtesy of a reply.
Falconry in Southern Africa must look to the future. We need to consolidate our efforts in contributing to scientific research and to the conservation effort. We have taken our place within the international falconry community and are confident that our standards of falconry match the best in the world. We look forward to hosting the International Association for Falconry Meeting in 2008.
We need to extend an appreciation of falconry to all members of our society and encourage them to value falconry and the raptors that we cherish. One of the greatest statesmen in South Africa’s recent history is the Archbishop Emeritus the Rev. Desmond Tutu. It was he who coined the phrase “Our Rainbow Nation” to characterize the rich mix of colors, creeds and practices that comprise our national heritage. Thus I can stand before my nation and say “I am a falconer. This is the bright fragment that I contribute to the patchwork. It is my heritage that I bring to you.”