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Q: On his recent trip to the Middle East, seems like President Bush was always getting his picture taken with a giant falcon on his arm. What’s up with that?

A: Falconry has long been a favored tradition of the rich and powerful of the Middle East. It began with Bedouin tribes who used the birds to hunt in the deserts; their prey became a major source of food for the tribes. In more recent times, it may not be done out of necessity, but for sport.

Of course, the tradition is not without its critics. One of the biggest complaints is that the falcons’ main prey — the houbara bustard — has been hunted to near extinction. As early as 1910, the British had banned hunting the bustard. But in the mid-20th Century, as Britain’s influence waned and local governments gained more power the sport enjoyed a resurgence.

Now, the most prized hunting falcons can fetch up to $1 million at auction. So even in places like Pakistan, where hunting with falcons is illegal for Pakistanis, the government sells permits each year for traders to capture hunting falcons and sell them.

Indeed, even though the pastime is illegal for Pakistanis, the government allows wealthy Arab businessmen and royalty to hunt in two southern desert provinces, where bustards can still be found. Of course, that might anger the locals. News reports in 2003 said that tribesmen in one Pakistani province fired on a hunting party that included a prince from the United Arab Emirates.

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