The sound of screeching eagles and hooting owls greets visitors to the Valle de las Águilas wildlife centre at the top of the Calamorro mountain, beside the cable car top station in Benalmádena. What was once the dream of falconer Jurgen Nikolaus and his son Jan has become a reality: one of the biggest collections of birds of prey in Spain with about 160 examples from all over the world, including eagles, vultures, falcons, owls, goshawks and even a female Andean condor.
Unfortunately, the tourism crisis resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has left this business in a "critical" financial situation and a staff shortage (they have all had to be temporarily laid off), and it receives no support except from a few volunteers who lend a hand with the very long list of tasks that have to be fulfilled at this privately run zoological centre.
Before the pandemic, they had between 200 and 300 visitors every day; now there are no more than 20 or 30 at weekends, which is the only time the cable car runs.
Those who come to the centre - and many people do not even know it exists - discover birds from almost everywhere on the planet. Visitors can watch the birds scheduled for a training session that day demonstrate their flying and hunting skills. The biggest attraction is seeing an eagle swoop down to attack a fox-fur lure, but there are other examples of the ancient art of falconry as well.
Jurgen, who is originally from Germany and is an elite judo player, lived in Japan for several years and when he returned to Europe he set up a successful sports and martial arts centre in Strasbourg. At the same time, he cultivated his passion for birds.
One day, tired of that way of life, he abandoned his businesses and brought his golden eagle Max, who is still with him (now at 35 he is very elderly and watches visitors from a safe perch) to the Costa del Sol, after it was proposed that he should set up a falconry centre in Marbella.
That was in 1996. The Marbella project came to nothing, but he set up an alternative centre in Benalmádena, giving demonstrations for the public in the garden of the Colomares castle.
He and his son Jan, who came not long afterwards to help him, had to take flight when construction work started in the area and in 2001 they landed in their present location, beside the exit from the cable car top station.
Bred and sold in captivity
As well as the visits and demonstrations, they breed and sell birds to falconers.
"We don't sell to just anybody, only to people with experience and professionals," says Jurgen, adding that they are bought especially for use at airports and other places where bird control is necessary.
"We try to educate and raise awareness among the public and we protect the birds, so they don't become extinct," he explains.
He says visitors sometimes ask if it's cruel to keep birds of prey in captivity, but he explains that in the wild these birds only fly when they need to "because it means wasting energy and they don't want to be flying all day, they want to be on their perches". In any case, all the birds are taken out to fly in turns, from Monday to Sunday, according to each species' needs and whether or not there is a show that day.
Their carers feed them as closely as possible to what they would find in the wild, such as small live animals (pigeons, rabbits, rats), with chicken and turkey as a dietary complement for the eagles and falcons; fish for some species and goats and sheep for the vultures. A regular component of their feed are newborn male chickens which are discarded by the meat industry (those reared and sold in butchers' shops are always female because they grow faster).
"We get through 80 ten-kilo boxes every month and a half," he says. In all, they need several tonnes of different meats to feed such an extensive brood.
Olga, an eagle owl, is the first to welcome visitors. Among the most striking examples at the centre are Ulan, a golden eagle, who is one of the stars because of his hunting skills; the American bald eagle (the one on the American flag); several species of falcon, including a striking one from Mexico with spectacular colours, and Sherpa, a 24-year-old female Andean condor, one of the few existing in Spain. But the list for enthusiasts is long: kites, southern crested caracaras, Central European and Siberian owls, ospreys, booted eagles, bateleurs, Cooper and Harris hawks; and also griffon, African and red-headed vultures.
No visitors or support
Jan and Jurgen's business is in a "critical" situation, not only in economic terms but because they are having to look after the birds practically alone; the workers have had to be temporarily laid-off and there are only a few volunteers to help.
"We have virtually no income, only enough money to feed them for a few days and our savings are running out," they say. To make matters worse, the cable car is only operating at weekends at the moment and few people are taking the trip. International tourism, especially British visitors, used to be their main business, along with a few local animal lovers who came quite regularly.
"We need more people to find out about us and come to visit us. A lot of people who live in Malaga province aren't even aware that we exist," says Jan, who admits that they feel "beseiged", in the same way as birds in the wild do with human pressure.
"I am fighting to make sure the birds don't realise what is happening and are still kept in perfect condition. I don't want to have to sell them because they are my father's legacy. They are our life and we are theirs, after so many years' work they are like children to us," he says.
Jan admits that he feels "worn out", trying to obtain resources for the birds, which is why he is hoping for some type of support from the public and the institutions, bearing in mind that this centre in Benalmádena is one of the biggest private collections of birds of prey in Spain. He and his father would also like to be allowed to give demonstrations at schools.
They just want a little bit of support for themselves and their birds. If they don't, they will be doomed to extinction.