The population of houbara bustard has declined in Punjab over the three-year period from 2017 to 2019, suggesting that hunting of the bird in the province is not sustainable, says a report recently approved by the Houbara Bustard Commission.
Appointed by the chief justice of the Lahore High Court in 2017, the commission was tasked with conducting field surveys to assess whether the hunting of houbara bustard was sustainable.
To estimate the bird’s population at three sites and across Punjab, data was collected as per standard protocols and analysed using standard principles of statistics.
“The overall estimated population of houbara (bustard) in Punjab was 6,223, 6,759 and 5,302 individuals during December 2017, December 2018 and December 2019 surveys, respectively, suggesting a decrease in the population of houbara in Punjab province over the years,” says the second supplemental report of the commission.
According to the findings of the recent report, estimates of houbara bustard population for 2019 when compared with those of 2018 and 2017 have shown decrease in Cholistan (from 4,299 in 2017 to 3,575 in 2019) and Thal area (from 591 in 2017 to 0 in 2019).
However, a slight increase was observed in Rajanpur-Rojhan area (1,333 in 2017 and 1,880 in 2018) when compared between 2017 and 2018 and decrease (1,880 in 2018 and 1,727 in 2019) when compared between 2018 and 2019.
During the December 2019 surveys, it was observed and confirmed that more feeding points were established in the sampled transects after 2017 and 2018 surveys at the Cholistan site. Further, it was reported that about 500 captive birds were released at the Cholistan site in September 2019 before the surveys.
A few birds tagged at both legs were also observed during the survey. The addition of feeding points and captive birds in the counts has also affected the comparison of 2018 and 2017 results.
“In fact, the population decline that has been established during 2019 surveys could be more severe if the feeding points were not added and captive birds were not released before the December 2019 surveys.
“We highlight, in conclusion, that populations of houbara observed in sampled transects (direct counts) and estimated populations have declined in the Punjab over the three-year period from 2017 to 2019. This suggests that hunting of houbara in the Punjab province is not sustainable,” the report says.
The commission found that Arab dignitaries supported significant development activities in the areas, particularly in the fields of human development, housing, access to potable water, health and education and infrastructure development (roads and airports).
“They have also resourced better wildlife management in some of the areas that has impacted on the revival of indigenous wildlife species such as the Chinkara in Cholistan under pressure and threat from illegal hunting.
“These findings are applicable to the areas surveyed by the commission’s teams in Cholistan and Rajanpur-Rojhan. However, such level of support and commitment was not found in Thal area.”
The LHC had imposed a complete ban on hunting houbara bustard and other rare migrating birds in January 2018 till a final survey of the hunting areas by a commission.
Advocate Sheraz Zaka and Kalim Ilyas on behalf of petitioners had submitted that houbara bustard was a vulnerable species and that the government should be restrained from allowing hunting permits before the next survey to be held in November.
The commission headed by Dr Pervez Hassan formulated survey teams, including representatives of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan, Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department, International Union for Conservation of Nature-Pakistan, Zoological Survey of Pakistan and Houbara Foundation International Pakistan.