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SIR BANI YAS ISLAND, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - Falcons, long used for hunting in the Middle East and a prized status symbol, are now being adapted for a more mundane problem: pest control.
The appearance of gleaming steel and glass high-rise buildings in the Gulf emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai where only desert existed a few decades ago, coupled with a long tradition of breeding birds of prey, has made falcon-based pest control a thriving business, as building owners try to prevent pigeons from nesting and relieving themselves on their flawless facades.
"Pigeons are flying rats, they will come in and just nest," said Richard Ellis, a falconer at Royal Shaheen Events.
"It is an ecological way to use falcons to control the populations of pigeons," he said as he placed hoods over the birds' heads as part of preparations to transport them to another pigeon-infested zone for a fresh hunt.
Royal Shaheen, a falconry enterprise based in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, makes up to half of its revenue from pest control on Sir Bani Yas island, a tourist destination where imported wild animals roam in a safari park.
Falcons, some able to dive at speeds over 320 km/h (200 mph), don't kill the pigeons but are used to scare them away from public places.
But still, not everyone approves of using a bird that is so widely revered in the Gulf for such workmanlike purposes.
Centuries ago in the region, Bedouin tribesmen used falcons -- "saqr" in Arabic -- to hunt for meat in the winter, when the only food available were dates, camel milk and bread. It is the national symbol of the seven United Arab Emirates, featured on road signs and the national currency.
Emirati falconer Mohammed Salem al-Kabi, who keeps 17 falcons in the desert oasis town of Al Ain, said using falcons as pest controllers was a travesty for such a majestic bird, which also does not like this kind of work.
"There are more efficient ways such as pills to make pigeons drowsy or using ultrasound to chase them away," Kabi said, gathered among his friends in an air-conditioned tent with a flat screen TV on the wall showing falcons hunting.
Around the world however, where many city squares such as the Piazza San Marco in Venice or Trafalgar Square in London are famous for their large pigeon populations, falcons have already been deployed to control unwanted birds.
"About 25 companies in Britain use falcons for pest control, and there are many all over the world, so clearly it works and is cost effective," said Nick Fox, Director at International Wildlife Consultants Limited in Wales.
Fox said Britain's Houses of Parliament and a stadium in Cardiff were also protected by trained hawks.
Falcons have also been used at the tennis courts of Wimbledon to keep the world championships pigeon-free, and in the past at New York's JFK Airport to scare off gulls and geese from entering the airspace and prevent bird strikes -- where birds are sucked into jet engines.
David Stead, owner of rival Al Hurr Falconry Services in the UAE, said falcon business was flying: "The market is massive, there is space for more. We don't tread on each other's toes."
"We fly at all their hotels, Burj Al Arab, Emirates Towers, Madinat Jumeirah," he said of his top client, luxury hotelier Jumeirah Group in Dubai.
In the UAE, Ras al-Khaimah airport, the University of Al Ain, as well as hotels in Fujairah have all expressed interest in employing falcons, said Royal Shaheen director Peter Bergh.
For Bergh's 40 falcons, fees range from 40,000 dirhams($10,890) up to 70,000 dirhams per month.
"Here the problem gets attention because of the glossy, shiny buildings which they spoil," said Bergh.
Regardless the opposition to pest control, falcon-breeding and -trading in the desert oil producer is on the rise.
"Falconry is now expanding. It used to be only for rich people and sheikhs to hunt," said Abdulla Lootah, an owner of a farm in Dubai, which breeds around 50 to 60 falcons each year.
"Because falcons are easy to get and they are everywhere, everybody wants to have one. That's why we started this business," he said.
Some 18,000 falcons are currently registered in the UAE, said Abdulrab al-Hamiri, a deputy manager at Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency.
Every year, some 800 falconers from the Gulf, including around 300 from the Emirates, gather for speed races, though only royalty and the rich can afford to go on grand hunting expeditions abroad in countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan where annual permits can cost up to $300,000.
"It is really expensive. You have to rent land first and have a permit for hunting," said Lootah, who keeps some 120 breeding falcons in air-conditioned spaces as mercury climbs well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the summer.
The increasing interest in using the birds for business as well as a hobby has however created another problem. Some falconers prefer wild falcons to birds raised in captivity and that has boosted legal and illegal trade in the species.
"With the break-up of the USSR in 1993, large tracts of Asia have been opened up to trapping, some of which is through legal quotas such as Mongolia, but some is illegal," Fox said.
"China and Kazakhstan used to have an export quota but have stopped trading in recent years. Lack of legal sources has sent much of it underground and so it continues illegally," he said.
The hunting of wild animals including falcons in the UAE was banned in 1978, Hamiri said, and the declaration of a new law in 2002 to regulate the trade of endangered species and falcons has dramatically decreased the illegal trade.
"In regard to the UAE, we have increased efforts to combat smuggling, and as per our records, we intercept a few individuals annually mainly at airports and land border crossings," Hamiri said. "In some cases it's live falcons or mounted specimens... Sedating falcons and hiding them in a car."
Every season around 600 falcons are estimated to arrive in the UAE, one of the biggest markets in the Gulf, prompting airlines to even issue "falcon passports" to regulate transport.
These days, falconers are willing to pay up to $270,000 for the rare hunting and sports birds, well up from around $30 in the late 1940s.
"It is expensive in value, but it is precious to our hearts," said Kabi, who keeps a perch for favorite falcons in his bedroom.
($1=3.672 UAE Dirhams)
Additional reporting by Martin Dokoupil, Editing by Paul Casciato