Houbara Bustard: Seasonal killers

Updated 15 Jul 2014


The endangered houbara bustard is in the news again. The Al-Sayd Reserve in Saudi Arabia, according to a recent news report, has seen a remarkable recovery of native vegetation and “the successful reintroduction of the endangered Arabian oryx, houbara bustard, ostriches and sand gazelles”.

Located on the western edge of the Najd Plateau, the reserve covers an area of over 2,200 sq. kilometres, making it the second largest fenced natural reserve in the world. The reserve is protected from hunters — and no one is allowed to kill the houbara bustard, the prized migratory bird, which has been reintroduced into the reserve and numbers around 1,000 (it had been hunted almost into extinction in this region).

So while Saudi Arabia’s citizens are busy protecting their endangered species at home, they have no qualms about slaughtering the houbara bustard elsewhere, especially in the deserts of Pakistan. Aside from the thrill of hunting in the desert like their ancestors once did, the Arabs consider the meat of the houbara to be an aphrodisiac (for which there is no scientific evidence).

Every winter, Saudi (and other Arab) royalty comes to Pakistan to hunt the houbara bustard in our deserts and, of course, there is outrage — the argument being that if it is illegal for Pakistanis to kill these endangered birds why should Arab sheikhs be allowed to do so? No action is usually taken, however, and Pakistan’s Foreign Office, which issues the special houbara bustard hunting permits, continues kowtowing to Arab royalty. This year outrage in the media was louder than before — Prince Fahd Bin Sultan, a member of the House of Saud and the governor of Tabuk province in Saudi Arabia, hunted 2,100 houbara bustards in Balochistan in an orgy of killing that lasted three weeks during the winter months. One newspaper headline called it a “Bustard act”.

It seems the government has finally woken up to the hunting of the endangered bird, but will it keep its word?

We know the exact figure of the birds killed because a report prepared by Jaffar Baloch, a divisional forest officer of the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department, Chagai at Dalbandin, entitled Visit of Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud regarding hunting of houbara bustard’ was leaked to the press. “It is an authentic report produced by the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department,” explained Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi, the press and media coordinator for WWF-Pakistan who also issued a media statement that “notes, and registers strong concern” about the press report that was written by the veteran environmental journalist Bhagwandas, a long time champion of the houbara bustard and other endangered species in the country.

It appears that the rather brave divisional forest officer was only doing his job by writing this report, for the bag limit under the special hunting permit issued by the Foreign Office is for not more than 100. The agreed hunting regulations are a bag limit of 100 birds, prohibition of use of guns and a 10-day maximum hunting period each season. The killing of 2,100 houbara bustards over 21 days by the Saudi royal had certainly warranted a report on the part of the hapless provincial department since it was a clear violation of the regulations.

To add insult to injury, the houbara bustard is officially the provincial bird of Balochistan. “I think he highlighted all the facts, which he received from his field officers,” pointed out Siddiqi. The report detailed exactly how many birds were killed by Prince Fahd (1,977 birds) and his hunting party (123 birds) and listed their locations (which includes reserved and protected areas in Balochistan). For his honesty, Jaffar Baloch was “transferred” to another department.

The estimates are that around 30,000 to 40,000 houbara bustards migrate to Pakistan every year for six months. A ground dwelling bird that eats mostly desert plants and insects, it earlier used to travel further south down to the Arabian Peninsula but due to over hunting by Arabs it no longer travels beyond Pakistan. Although the bird is protected internationally, the government has allowed Arab royalty to hunt the bird in Pakistan since the 1960s when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the founder of the UAE first started coming to Pakistan’s deserts to hunt with his falcons.

Although Sheikh Zayed passed away in 2004, the UAE royal family continues to invest millions of dollars to ensure that they can keep on hunting the houbara bustard. In Rahim Yar Khan district in Pakistan they have established a Houbara Research and Rehabilitation Centre where houbaras taken from poachers are brought and nursed back to health before being set free.

Another similar research and rehabilitation centre was also set up in Nag Valley in Balochistan. In fact, conservation efforts started by the Houbara Foundation International Pakistan (a non-profit organisation in Pakistan dedicated to conservation of the houbara bustard) and the provincial wildlife department of Balochistan have revealed a positive trend in Nag Valley, according to WWF-Pakistan.

They point out that “due to the efforts of Houbara Foundation International Pakistan, the population of houbara bustards in Pakistan which was declining rapidly two decades ago has stabilised in the last 20 years.”

WWF-Pakistan says that the federal government has recently decided to observe a moratorium on houbara hunting during the 2014-2015 season to replenish houbara bustard stocks. They would also like to see a strict check on any illegal hunting. There is, in fact, a list of 16 conditions entitled Code of Conduct for houbara bustard issued by the federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first clause states: “Only sustainable hunting of houbara bustard is allowed”. Unfortunately, there is no way of ensuring that Pakistan’s Foreign Office actually enforces its own code of conduct.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014