HoubaraAs the winter starts in Pakistan, Houbara Bustard, a popular quarry off falconers, starts to arrive in Pakistan from the Central Asian regions. A large number comes from Mongolia, Siberia and Central Asian Republics (CARs) in November and December and return in March and April. About 25,000-35,000 houbaras enter Pakistan from the Central Asian states and China’s Sinkiang province, as the temperature drops below freezing point in those areas.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature includes the bird on its ‘red list’ of threatened species, estimating there are fewer than 97,000 left globally.

Long Journey

Covering about 5,500 kilometers from Siberia and Central Asian Republics, the bird takes only five to seven days, flying at a height of 4,730 meters, crossing Chitral, Nowshera, Kohat, Lakki Marwat and stay in Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and onwards to the Cholistan desert.

Tug of War

And a tug of war like always starts between the hunter-funded lobbies and the conservationists. One group tries to persuade the government to continue with its Houbara Bustard policy, while the other wants that hunting be banned for a few years so the dwindling population of that threatened bird can resurrect itself.

A native of Central Asia’s Kuzl Kum region, around the Aral Sea, the Houbara Bustard comes in winter in the comparatively warmer environment offered by Pakistan. Earlier it used to travel further south down to the Arabian peninsula but the Arabs fell for the myth that its meat was aphrodisiacal— a notion not supported by scientific evidence, and soon killed the entire migratory flock.

houbara-bustard-608Hunting is Internationally Banned

The bird is protected internationally and its hunting, netting, etc is banned in Pakistan— at least for the locals. Its hunting is banned under wildlife laws; and is only regulated through grant of permits which is usually done in the case of Arab rulers visiting Pakistan.

The dry areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP),Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan are the winter habitats of the migratory bird where sufficient food is available, according to Dr Mumtaz Malik, former Chief Conservator, Wildlife Department KP.

Dr Malik says that a scientific survey is needed to find out the accurate number of Houbaras that arrive in Pakistan for which financial resources are required.

Sensing Danger

Houbara is a very sensitive bird and does not use the route again if they sense any danger on their way during the first journey. In case the Houbara looses its mate it takes three to five years to find a new one. The population travels in groups with a leader. Once they loose their leader, the deputy guides the group to reach its destination.

Scientifically known as macqueenii, the districts of D.I. Khan, Tank, Rahim Yar Khan, D.G. Khan and arid areas of southern Punjab provides rich diversity of flora, fauna, insects and weeds to the endangered specie. The Houbara eats flora, insects and earthworms.

Declining Population

Clip_64 (2)The Houbara population is declining due to illegal hunting and destruction of its habitats.

If unchecked hunting, illegal trapping and trading of the bird continues at the existing scale, the Asian Houbara could be extinct within 15 to 25 years, according to a study conducted by the Environment Research and Wildlife Development Agency. The Agency estimates that the natural death rate of the bird was 3.28 percent while death due to hunting accounted for more than 73 percent. The rate of hunting has reached nearly 20.8 percent, dangerously exceeding the acceptable 7.2 percent.

The rapid increase in population is also affecting the birds’ habitat and breading grounds.

Interestingly, rivalry between the Houbara newborns is also one of the factors of their gradual decrease. Houbara gives birth to only two chicks a year, but the elder kills the younger one due to the fear of sharing food.

According to the experts, if the present situation continues, the bird will become extinct by 2030.

Experts estimate that the natural death rate of the endangered birds is 33 percent while death due to hunting is more than 68 percent.

The rate of hunting has reached nearly 21 percent, up from the acceptable 7 per cent.

The number of NGOs interested in preserving the endangered species have been on the decline.

Precarious Situation
If the present situation continues, the number of these birds will be reduced by 50 percent by 2015 and they could be extinct by 2027.

It is still time to prevent the killing since this year’s slaughter of the Houbara Bustard has not started yet, the authorities concerned should cancel the permits already issued so that the endangered species can be saved from being annihilated.

There is a need for community involvement through financial and other incentives in the preservation and protection of the Houbara.

Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species has classified it as an endangered migratory bird. The Houbara is also listed in the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which is known as the Bonn Convention. The World Conservation Union has put it in the ‘Near Threatened’ category.

Unfortunately scant respect is shown to international laws and conventions and special permits are issued by authorities to for Houbara hunting.

Arab Hunters

HoubaraReports of a Saudi prince killing more than 2,100 endangered birds in Pakistan highlights the need for stricter implementation of wildlife protection laws and control over issuing  permits.

The houbara bustard annually are hunted in Pakistan by assorted dignitaries and ‘notables’ from the Arabian peninsula and the Gulf region.Up to 17 permits a year are issued, allowing permit holders to hunt up to 10 birds a day in specified areas, a number that is reportedly widely flouted. Also flouted is the requirement that the birds are hunted with falcons but they are more frequently shot, instead.

The Balochistan Forest Department has protested the issuing of permits, saying that bustard numbers are in decline — they are — and that at the very least there needs to be a moratorium on hunting to allow the numbers to recover.

In a miserable irony the hunters all come from countries that are signatories to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and earlier this year the United Arab Emirates sent a hunting party to Balochistan as it was simultaneously signing a treaty to protect them with the government of Kazakhstan, where many of the birds commence their fatal migration.

The hunting permits are issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have been for decades.

It is time to call a halt to this annual slaughter and for the ministry to stop issuing permits, no matter whose toes it may tread on. Pakistan needs to impress upon its friends in the Gulf and the Middle East that it is serious about protecting its endangered wildlife. It is time that we shed the ways of the past and stopped appeasing the princes at the expense of these beautiful birds.

Pakistan authorities allowed the Saudi prince to kill 2% of the total global population of the houbara bustard during a recent hunting spree.

More than 2,100 protected houbara bustards were hunted during a Saudi prince’s visit to Balochistan province in January 2014, which shows the poor implementation of wildlife protection laws and inadequate conservation measures in the country.

The news that Saudi Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud himself poached as many as 1,977 endangered birds while other members of his brigade hunted 123 birds during a three-week hunting trip in  north-west Pakistan’s Chagai district has created a furore.

The hunting spree highlights the saga of official apathy, petty fines and the inability of provincial wildlife departments to deal with the escalating problem of illegal hunting. Even independent wildlife conservation organisations like WWF-PakistanIUCN- Pakistan and Pakistan Wildlife Foundation did not lodge a formal protest.

Prince Fahd spent an estimated Rs1 million during his last visit to Balochistan and had a separate airport constructed for his annual visits.

In fact, the permits for hunting the internationally protected bird are person-specific and can be no way used by anyone else other than the person in whose name the permit is issued. The permit allows the holder to hunt not more than 100 houbara bustards in as many as 10 days and that too in specific allocated areas, not in wildlife protected or park areas.

But unfortunately, the Saudi prince kept hunting the birds for 21 days, most of them from wildlife reserves and protected areas.

According to provincial wildlife laws, hunting of the globally endangered and protected houbara bustard is banned in Pakistan. But the federal government issues special permits to royals from Gulf states through the foreign office.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues permits and allocates hunt areas to 17 Arab dignitaries each hunting season.

Permit holders can hunt up to ten birds in one day, but only in the specified areas. Districts like Turbat, Dera Bugti and Panjgur are off-limits to the royals after one camp was attacked by separatists in Kech. Musakhail says the royal families have killed 270 birds in Musakhel district and 250 in Qila Saifullah in 2014 alone. This is a common practice in some districts of Balochistan.

Royal families from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain have been allocated hunting areas in Balochistan for decades.

“Only Rs 5 million was allocated to the entire Balochistan Forest Department during this fiscal year,” says Director of the Balochistan Forest Department Taj Mohamed Rind. “We don’t even have a vehicle that staff can use to monitor the hunters.” Rind is hopeful that legislative changes will curb excessive hunting. Under the Wildlife Act 1974, a DFO can issue a fine of Rs500 if there is a violation of the hunting laws and the case is referred to a magistrate. However, under the recently enacted Balochistan Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management Act, 2014, the DFO has the power of a magistrate and can impose a sizeable fine or send any violators behind bars.

After promulgation of the Balochistan Wildlife Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management Act 2014, the provincial government is empowered to take measures to curb the poaching of endangered wildlife species. However, with poaching continuing, the measures to implement the law are yet to be seen.

The Act authorises the government to grant permission to Arab dignitaries for hunting houbara bustard. Earlier such permits were issued by the federal government.

Section 74 (1) of the act says:

“Any officer or any other person, authorised by the government in this behalf, may search any person, premises, vessel, vehicle, wildlife animal package, receptacle or covering without warrant, so as to satisfy himself whether or not an offence under this Act has been committed and arrest the offender without warrant.” 

Section 79 (6) says:

“The Forest and Wildlife Office may enter any premises, enclosure, or any building, to make a search and seizure of wild animal, kept illegally, or dead or any part thereof and arrest offender, or break the lock of any door, fixture or conveyance for purpose of search and seizure of wild animal living or dead or every part thereof or case property or arrest of offender.”

Poaching of rare animals and birds — including houbara bustard, Markhor and red-legged partridge — is continuing in some areas of the province without any check despite the introduction of the law.

“Government functionaries, senior bureaucrats, tribal chiefs and their guests from abroad are seen poaching houbara bustard in Chagai, Washak, Barkhan, Musakhel and other areas,” an official of the forests and wildlife department said. Similarly, he said, poachers hunt Markhor in Taktato and Chiltan mountain ranges and Qila Saifullah and Shirani forests. “They slaughter their prey, cook and eat its meat and stuff its head and skin which are later sold in Karachi and exported to the Gulf states and Europe from there.” The official said the department’s employees were involved in poaching of endangered species and their export via Karachi and Gwadar.

After covering long distances a large number of cranes reach Zhob river from Siberia every winter but most of them are killed by poachers.

Two kinds of houbara bustards are found in Balochistan. One of them comes from Siberia, lands in Balochistan in winter and returns after the arrival of summer.

The second is a local variety of the bird which inhibits Rakhshani Naag valley in southern Balochistan. Birds of both varieties fall prey to poaching. As a result, the number of the local species has declined to an alarmingly low level.

Hunting Season 2015

A Saudi prince was on a hunting spree for rare birds in Balochistan in early 2015 despite a court-imposed ban and the government’s insistence that the foreign delegation is only on a diplomatic mission.

The annual hunt has sparked controversy in recent years because of the Houbara bustard’s dwindling numbers, with the issue also shining a spotlight on traditionally close ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A provincial High Court in Balochistan in November 2014 cancelled all permits for hunting in the province before the arrival of the Saudi prince and his companions, but since reaching Pakistan, the Saudi party has been allowed to hunt unimpeded.

The provincial government has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the ban to seek a formal permission for the Royal guests to hunt, but the hearing has not been fixed.

“Arab dignitaries are engaged in hunting Houbara bustard but our staff are not allowed to have access to their camp or accompany the hunting party. There is no knowledge that how many birds have been hunted,” one official said.

The government for its part has denied that the Saudi party is engaged in hunting, saying that they had come to oversee development activities.

“They have other kind of activities like inspecting Arab-funded development schemes and meeting tribal elders of the area as part of good will”, minister for forest and wildlife Obaidullah Babat, told reporters.

The issue has stirred controversy among youth activists in the restive province, where a separatist insurgency has been simmering since 2004 and many are critical of the government’s policies, including its ties to ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Up to 40 youth activists from Chaghi district protested in front of Quetta Press Club against the hunting of Houbara Bastard. They chanted slogans against the provincial government and demanded the expulsion of the Arab hunting parties from the province.

Clip_115Justice Shams Mahmood Mirza of the Lahore High Court on November 27, 2014, extended until December 10 the order of suspending the permits given to foreign dignitaries to hunt internationality protected houbara bustards and other migrated birds.

The judge also gave an opportunity to the legal counsel of the Foreign Ministry to submit a detailed reply about the legitimacy of hunting permits.

The court had also directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue notices to all hunting permit holders to arrange their representation in the proceedings. An additional advocate general on behalf of the Punjab government in reply had said that it had no role in issuance of the permits. He said that the federal government had the powers to issue such hunting permits.

A number of petitions were filed, and in one petition, the petitioner lawyer submitted that 33 permits/ licences had been issued by the federal government to foreign dignitaries of five countries of the Gulf region to hunt internationally protected houbara bustards during the hunting season 2013-2014.

He submitted that the said permits cannot be issued by the federal government and are in violation of sections 2 (n) and 9 (ii) read with Item No 20 of the 3rd Schedule to the Punjab Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) (Amendment) Act, 2007.

The other petitioner had submitted that during the stay of the birds in Pakistan, people hunt them in violation of international laws. He said the government had issued 25 licences for hunting of these birds and licence holders are hunting these birds unbridled. He requested the court to ensure a safe stay and exit for the Siberian birds.

The famous route from Siberia to various destinations in Pakistan over Karakorum, Hindu Kush, and Suleiman ranges along the Indus River down to the delta is known as the International Migratory Bird Route. The birds start on this route in November. February is the peak time and by March they start flying back home. There are a total of seven identified flyways in the world. He had requested to impose complete ban on hunting of these birds.

Hunting season 2013-2014 

17 Arab dignitaries hold permits for the following areas for the 2013-2014 hunting season, commencing October 2014:

Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, Crown Prince, First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia was allocated district Dera Bugti, Dera Murad Jamali, Nasirabad, Jaffarabad and Duki in Loralai district.

Prince Fahd in Chagai, Awaran and Naushki districts, Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Hamad Bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa, uncle of Kingof Bahrain was allocated Mastung district.

Marshal Shaikh Khalifa Bin Ahmed-Al Khalifa, Commander-in-Chief of Bahrain Defence Forces was allocated Tehsil Toisar of district Musakhel.

Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zahed Al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and the Ruler of Abu Dhabi was allocated district Zhob, Ormara, Pasni in Gwadar, Kharan (excluding Nag Dera breeding area), Panjgur and Washuk.

Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai was allocated Khuzdar and Lesbela district.

Gen. Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE Armed Forces was allocated Tehsil Lehri of district Sibi (only Domki area).

Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative of the Western Region, UAE was allocated Tehsil Lehri of district Sibi (not Domki area) old Ketchi and Sani Shoran of district Bolan.

Shaikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, member of the ruling family, UAE was allocated district Qila Saifullah and Kakar Khurasan.

Shaikh Mohammed Hilal Bin Tarraf Al-Mansoori, UAE was allocated Samungali area.

Shaikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Brother of the Emir of State of Qatar, was allocated Tehsil Musakhel and Tehsil Drug indistrict Musakhel. The same family Shaikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabber Al-Thani, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the state of Qatar was allocated a hunting area in Sub Division Muslim Bagh of District Qila Saifullah.

Shiekh Mohammed BinKhalifa Al-Thani, uncle of the Emir of the state of Qatar was allocated area in district Loralai (excluding Duki Tehsil).

Sheikh Ali Bin Abdullah Thani Al-Thani, Member of the Supreme Council of the Royal Family of the state of Qatar was allocated district Turbat (Kech).Sheikh Thani Bin AbdulAziz Al-Thani,member of the Royal Family of the state of Qatar was allocated Tehsil Surab of district Kalat.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Thani Al-Thani, member of the ruling family of the state of Qatar was allocated Tehsil Kingri in district Musakhel and Barkhan.

Sheikh Falah BinJassim Bin Jabor Al-Thani, Borther of the former Prime Minister of the state of Qatar was allocated hunting area of Jhal Magsi.

Hunting Permits

HoubaraThe Nawaz Sharif Government admitted in the National Assembly on March 28, 2014 that the foreign ministry during 2012-13 had allowed 13 members of the royal family of UAE to hunt 1,300 houbara bustards.

The information was placed before the house in response to a question asked by Naeema Kishwar Khan of the JUI-F.

“In total 13 members of the UAE royal family visited Pakistan during 2012-13 for the sole purpose of hunting during which they were allowed to hunt a maximum of 100 birds (each),” the house was told through a written answer by the ministry of foreign affairs.

Accepting that HB is a protected species in the country, the house was told that each year steps were taken for breeding and conservation of the birds in the area.

In the midst of all this, the Government of Pakistan has issued 28 special permits to the rulers, members of ruling families and other dignitaries of four Gulf states to hunt the internationally protected Houbara Bustard during the 2010-2011 season.

According to the code of conduct, the hunting period is restricted to 10 days with a bag limit of 100 birds.

The United Arab Emirates tops the list with 13 hunting permits — 11 of these have been awarded to the ruler and ruling family members.

Five of these have been granted to people from Abu Dhabi and six from Dubai.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, President of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, has been allotted hunting areas in three provinces. In the Punjab he has been granted Rahimyar Khan, Rajanpur and D.G. Khan districts, in Sindh Sukkur, Ghotki, Nawabshah and Sanghar districts and in Balochistan his areas comprise Zhob, Ormara, Gwadar, Pasni, Panjgur and Washuk districts.

Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown prince of Abu Dhabi, can hunt in Lehri Tehsil of Sibi district, Balochistan.

Deputy prime minister of UAE, Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, has been permitted to hunt in Khairpur district, including Kot Diji.

Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice-president of UAE and ruler of Dubai, has been permitted to hunt in Khuzdar and Lasbela districts of Balochistan and Muzaffargarh district in Punjab.

Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud has been allotted Chagai and Nushki districts of Balochistan.

Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, interior minister and brother of King Abdullah, has been permitted to hunt in Dera Bugti, Dera Murad Jamali, Nasirabad and Awaran districts of Balochistan. In Punjab his territory comprises Khushab, Jhang, Mianwali and Sargodha districts.

Use of Foreign Falcons to Hunt Houbara Bustard

But why do the royals go after the houbara with so much relish? They contend that falconry is their traditional sport and houbara is an ideal prey for it. By one estimate, 6,000 to 7,000 live houbaras are shipped to the UAE every year. These birds are trapped through illegal netting and poaching. A typical hunting camp consists of about 300 men and incurs an expense of about $1 million.

The Arab hunters sometimes bring falcons with them to hunt the Houbara Bustard for which special hunting permits are issued by the ministry of foreign affairs. The ministry issues a permit for the temporary import of falcons and for their subsequent re-export. The permit usually contains conditions such as that ‘no falcon would be allowed to be imported for the purpose of training and that no local purchase/export of local falcons would be allowed.’

Mary Anne Weaver covering houbara hunting for The New Yorker wrote:

“As we waited on the tarmac, the arriving planes lit up the night sky. Flying in formation, observing protocol-apparently-an executive Learjet was followed by two customised Boeings and a fleet of reconfigured C-130s, which flew two abreast. They had all been designated ‘special VVIP flights’ by the Pakistani government. The lead planes touched down and a red carpet was hastily unrolled. As we approached the entourage, an Arab diplomat said with exhaustion in his voice ‘this is the sixth flight in one week’.” Weaver went on: “A local chieftain later told me, ‘You know, madam, these Arabs consider houbara an aphrodisiac.’ So I have heard, I replied. ‘But some of them, madam, eat one houbara a day, sometimes two if it’s a special occasion. That means they may eat as many as 500 birds a year!” Poor bird.

A few years ago, the houbara hunting camp of Qatar’s petroleum minister in Kech was vandalised and set on fire. Luckily, the minister hadn’t arrived from Qatar at the time. Incidentally, the minister’s hunting entourage had been attacked last year, too. The houbara must possess some rare quality for its hunters to pursue it so relentlessly.

The government, during 2012-13, issued 12 permits for hunting with about 815 trained falcons. Two of these permits for 135 falcons were presented to the Saudi royal family, five for 200 falcons to the royal family of Bahrain, two permits for 250 falcons to the UAE, and three for 230 falcons to the royal families of Qatar.

Although a rapidly increasing population and use of pesticides are also partly responsible, but indiscriminate hunting, poaching and netting even during the mating season are the main reasons why our wildlife is being destroyed. Strange it is that politically influential hunters and bird shooters are usually appointed game wardens. The irony is that while the houbara is becoming extinct, the royals chasing it are multiplying. Too many royals, too few birds.

Locals, including officials, politicians and wildlife field staff, are plied with gifts and said the government had been issuing special houbara hunting permits. This is why even local community members pave the way for as much hunting as pleases them (the Arab royals).

Arab hunters, who use trained falcons to kill the bustards, are allotted private hunting grounds in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab provinces.

Houbara bustards are also illegally hunted and trapped in Pakistan, and then shipped to Arab countries so they can be used for training falcons. The bird is a favourite target because, like the horns of the critically endangered rhinoceros, its meat is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

In the southern province of Sindh, for instance, 33 permits were issued for the hunting season.

Responding to the concerns of civil society organisations against the hunting of houbara bustards, the provincial high court took action against the issuance of permits by the foreign ministry and ordered representatives of the permit holders to appear before the court.

While they did not appear, the judges ordered a ban on hunting of the houbara bustards on February 10 all across Sindh province. But the hunting of the migratory birds went on unchecked in adjoining Balochistan.

Asked for a response to the court ban on houbara bustard hunting in Sindh, foreign office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam said that: “It has remained a decades-old tradition since Arab princes come to Pakistan in pursuit of the houbara bustard.

Also, the Lahore High Court in January 2014 put an interim ban on hunting of houbara bustard and directed the government to submit a list of permit holders.

The court passed the order on petitions challenging hunting of migratory birds. The petitioners said 33 permits had been issued by the government to dignitaries from five Gulf countries to hunt the threatened houbara bustard this winter.

They said the permits violated the Punjab Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) (Amendment) Act, 2007.

The judge directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs secretary to issue notices to all 33 permit holders to arrange for representation at the next hearing on February 10.

Arab royalty has long enjoyed the privilege of hunting in Pakistan, where more than 70 wildlife sanctuaries and game parks have been set aside for them. Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar are home to a large number of Pakistani expatriate workers and the government does not want to damage ties. Remittances by expat workers continue to prop the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

Wildlife Conservator at the Pakistan’s Climate Change Division, Umeed Khalid, added that the houbara bustard is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as vulnerable to extinction and feared to be decreasing by 30% a year in Pakistan alone.

The birds are globally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he said, stressing the need for efforts at all levels to contain the hunting.

According to WWF-Pakistan Director General Ali Hasan Habib, surveys should be conducted on any species listed as threatened– before hunting permits are issued. He also said the hunting should be closely monitored. In his view, protected areas and breeding grounds of the houbara bustard must remain exempt from any hunting.  The introduction of trophy hunting programmes – selective hunting of wild animals – would help increase the houbara bustard population as well as provide funds for development programmes and generate livelihoods in and around sanctuaries, he said.

Pakistan will observe a moratorium on hunting to replenish the stocks of this endangered species is disgusting to say the least. The code of conduct allows a bag limit of 100 birds, for a period of 10 days

This is a mockery of the hard work and efforts of conservationists who have been working tirelessly to prevent the extinction of this species of birds.

The ministry of foreign affairs is obviously pressuring the wildlife secretariat to comply with their orders.

And for what: a few petrodollars which will be quickly misappropriated and the dignitaries will go away without being aware of the irreparable harm they will be doing to the ongoing effort for the conservation of this species. When will we wake up?

Disappointing

The decision by the federal government to allow dignitaries of five countries of the Gulf region to hunt the internationally-protected houbara bustard during the hunting seasons is disappointing. The widely-prized bird is rare in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan.

The provincial bird of Balochistan is already in danger. If hunting persists it will result in the extinction of the species in the region, as a majority of dignitaries have already been given hunting permits.

The government should reconsider over its decision for the larger interest of the country and the protection of its environment.

After wiping out the entire Houbara population at home, the Arab hunters with their petro-fuelled lifestyles found their way to Pakistan in the 1970s. They are lavish with their gifts and pay off those who matter. Rational thinking takes the biggest blow in this orgy of the debauched. An endangered species, despite the concerns voiced year after year by conservationists and wildlife scientists, continues to be decimated in the most barbaric manner imaginable.

Some time back one of the largest international nature conservation NGOs launched a campaign against the slaughter of the Houbara Bustard. The hunters got angry and sent a minister who said they only visit Pakistan when the government invites them to come and hunt. We are law-abiding people, he said, and will not hunt if we are not issued hunting permits. The hunters meantime ‘won over’ the top officials of the NGO concerned. Several head honchos who were in the forefront of the campaign against hunting are now espousing a policy completely at odds with their earlier take.

Recently the federal environment ministry, also supported by the foreign ministry, sent a proposal to the PM to impose a ban on hunting for three to five years. The proposal however remains with the PM, with a decision pending for over six months now.

The hunter-backed lobby has now come up with the wholly unsustainable concept of the ‘sustainable’ hunting of the Houbara. Their argument, in the main, is that hunters spend large amounts on developing the areas they focus on and help provide employment. Some hunters also go for charity work. What’s more, it is argued, the government could urge hunters to hire people to keep a check on illegal hunting and netting by small-time poachers to ensure the houbara that visit our shores return home in sustainable numbers.

Another plea offered by the hunting lobby and bureaucrats is that Pakistan’s relations with the UAE will suffer if Houbara-hunting is banned across the board. That really is a pathetic excuse. Does Pakistan’s relationship with the Emirates depend on whether or not a threatened migratory bird should be killed en masse? Is that the basis of our understanding on core issues?

One argument that does make sense is that Houbara-hunting should be banned in all the range states if it is to be effective.Pakistan letting the Arab rulers to kill Houbara Bustard is defiance of Pakistani and international laws which protect Houbara.

The trans-boundary ban is an ideal state of affairs. But if other countries do not accept it, it should not be taken as justification for the genocide witnessed in Pakistan. The other part of the argument does not carry much weight on account of the law and order situation. We should understand that hunters come here not out of their love for us but for the pleasure of hunting. Their enthusiasm may be on the wane this year but that is purely for security reasons.

Security Cordons
Normally there are four security cordons at the hunting camp. The first cordon is the hunter’s own security, two other cordons relate to the law-enforcement agency personnel while the fourth is that of the police. Everyone knows that the wildlife department is powerless when it comes to dealing with Arab dignitaries. So what we see, year on year, is a merciless slaughter.

Stop Issuing Hunting Permits
So the ground realities suggest that monitoring the bag limit is simply not possible in this case. The only way to prevent the slaughter of the Houbara is to stop issuing hunting permits. The hunters, who are members of Arab aristocracy, would not engage in illegal activity, at least not publicly. But once the hunting permits are awarded, no one can ensure that the bag limit will be observed.

Authentic Data
Our decision-makers should understand that sustainable hunting must follow certain criteria. One, independently collected authentic data regarding the population of birds and status of species and, two, a monitoring mechanism that ensures the bag limit is followed irrespective of the hunter’s clout.

There is no credible data regarding the Houbara Bustards that visit Pakistan each winter and as such it is impossible to quantify how many birds can be culled without imperilling the breeding stock. The second and most crucial point is the implementation of hunting laws and ensuring a bag limit. The ground reality is that when Arab hunters descend on our shores they are awarded the highest protocol possible. Low-level wildlife department staffers cannot even dare go near the hunters’ camps and check the bag limit.

98 Houbara Bustards Rescued in Sindh

On April 14, 2014, the Sindh Parliamentary Secretary for Wildlife Nasir Hussain Shah, told the Sindh Assembly that in the past two years the Wildlife Department had rescued some 211 rare and protected animals from smugglers. 

The rescued animals include 98 Houbara Bustards, 34 falcons, 24 Chukar partridges, 16 peafowls, 15 deer, 11 freshwater turtles, five flamingos, four partridges, two hog deer and two jackals, he added. 

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