South African Falconry History

The following information was compiled by Adrian Lombard and used with his permission.

To understand the southern African heritage, we need to examine the history of falconry in the sub-continent and see if there is a thread of knowledge which passes from master to apprentice. To start with, I have allowed the devil to sit on my shoulder, and will engage in some wild speculation.

The Earliest Record

I believe that we are all familiar with the stone structures known as The Great Zimbabwe that are to be found roughly in the centre of Zimbabwe, near the town of Masvingo.

On a visit to the Great Zimbabwe, in 1992, I found, in the site museum, a metal object identified as an “Arab Falconry Bell”. My efforts to further research this object have been thwarted. It remains interesting to speculate that a falconer may have visited this place where he lost, left or gave away a bell, leaving tantalizing evidence of the practice of falconry in the pre-history of this region.

Several soapstone birds were found within the ruins of Zimbabwe. Their significance is lost in history, but they are believed to have been religious artefacts and remain a symbol of that nation today. I will leave this topic with an image of that enigmatic Zimbabwe Bird, and wonder what falconers may make of it.

Recent History of Falconry in Southern Africa

There is no further record of falconry in Southern Africa until the late 1930s; the time when a renaissance of falconry was occurring in the Western World. The subsequent development of falconry in this region can be described in terms of three distinct generations of falconers, resulting in the current situation.

1) The First Generation

Falconry was imported to Southern Africa by a widely dispersed group of individuals who came from different origins and settled in different areas.

W. Eustace Poles is the earliest falconer whom I have identified. He settled in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He was connected with the English falconer Hugh Knight and contributed several articles to “The Falconer” in the early 1950s. He provides the first example of the mentor/apprentice system, in Southern Africa, as one Alan Savory spent his Christmas holidays with Eustace, when a schoolboy, learning falconry.

Heinie Von Michaelis was an immigrant to the Western Cape, from Germany, immediately before the Second World War. He brought with him a love for raptors and knowledge of falconry. He was a creditable artist and wrote several books that display his artwork and his passion for birds. His first book was “Birds of the Gauntlet” reviewed in “The Falconer” of October 1953.
David Reid Henry, the well known bird artist, was a contemporary, who first came to Southern Rhodesia (Now Zimbabwe) in 1960, and spent considerable time there, eventually settling before his death in 1978. He learnt much from George Lodge, the famous British Artist, who, besides painting, initiated him into the art of training hawks and falcons. He acquired, in Zimbabwe, his female Crowned Eagle, “Tiara”, whom he had for 9 years.

A brief meeting with David and Tiara was my own first introduction to the concept of falconry. He was the mentor of Ray Black who was also a falconer and bird artist.

This generation of falconers is characterized by a thirst for contact with other falconers and a need to disseminate knowledge. They contributed to the British Falconry Club’s journal, “The Falconer.”. Eustace wrote a paper entitled “Hawk Catching by Means of the Do-Gaza Net”. Rudi De Wet published a book entitled “Falconry in South Africa: an introduction to the art.” but it had a predictably minute market and he claimed that it bankrupted the publisher.

There was a lack of structure to falconry during this time and the law largely ignored falconry although it was curtailed in South Africa by legislation prohibiting the setting of one animal against another.

2) The Second Generation

These falconers learnt falconry directly or indirectly from the original first generation falconers, many as school boys who apprenticed themselves. Falconry became more formalized and experience was gained with indigenous birds. Favoured species became Black Sparrowhawks, Redbreasted Sparrowhawks, Passage Lanner falcons and African Hawk Eagles.

The first African Peregrines were obtained and efforts were started to breed these. The lack of structure was recognized and the Zimbabwean (Rhodesian), Transvaal and Natal Falconry Clubs were formed.

In Zimbabwe the sport was never outlawed, but the need for an appropriate policy and a relationship with the conservation authorities was recognized. The founding president of the ZFC, Dr John Condy, had the foresight to recognize this and the good fortune to find a sympathetic conservator in Ron Thompson, employed by the National Parks Board of Zimbabwe. This laid the foundation for the creditable situation to be found in Zimbabwean Falconry today.

In South Africa, the situation was more complex, with its larger size, provincialization of conservation authorities and restrictive legislation. This delayed and inhibited the progress of formal falconry structures and policies. The South African Falconry Association was formed in 1990 and Falconry was only legalized in the Cape in 1992.

Falconers in Southern Africa have striven to develop good relations with raptor biologists, conservationists, rehabilitators and amateur bird watchers. This has laid a good foundation for falconry today. I would like to mention Peter Steyn, the noted photographer and raptor biologist, who, whilst never a falconer, has enjoyed a good relationship with falconers, and has maintained a benevolent attitude towards us. He encouraged my own love for raptors when I was a schoolboy in Zimbabwe.

A number of individuals can be seen as bridging the gap between the second and third generations of falconers in this region.

Ron Hartley was a powerhouse in the development of falconry in Zimbabwe and is largely responsible for the good standing of falconry in our sub-region, but I would add that his achievements were the product of 30 years of nurturing in Zimbabwe and, despite difficult circumstances, the good work goes on there. Others would include Tim Wagner, our chairman and, perhaps, myself.

3) The Third Generation

The 186 South African Falconers and the 35 Zimbabwean Falconers represent this generation today.

Thus falconry in our region has grown from humble beginnings. We take pride in the standard of falconry that is practiced here and which matches the best from anywhere in the world. We cherish our association with raptor conservation, and, having gained acceptance, we look forward to contributing to raptor research and outreach projects. We are jealous of our privileged access to a sustainable harvest of wild raptors that is in keeping with the principles of the Convention on Biodiversity.

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