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The houbara: Dodging extinction

Updated August 20, 2015

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a petition seeking a ban on the issuance of permits and licenses for the hunting of endangered birds and also ordered the cancellation of all existing permits in this regard.

The decision was immediately applauded by local conservationists who have been fighting a long (and often uphill) battle to restrict the hunting of endangered birds (especially the houbara bustard), by (mainly) Arab hunters.

The houbara species found in Pakistan is officially known as MacQueen's Bustard, or Asian Bustard. It was once also common in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, but by the early 1970s they had been hunted to near-extinction by native falconers.

Till the late 1960s, the species was found in abundance in Pakistan and was only occasionally hunted for its meat by village folk in the areas where it thrived.

In the Gulf, however, where it had become extinct, its meat was believed to have contained an aphrodisiac, a myth that has never been proven scientifically.

In Pakistan in the mid-1970s, the bustards began to be hunted by men who eventually became their greatest adversaries: Rich Arab sheikhs.

How it all began

Rahim Yar Khan is an ancient city in southern Punjab. Although small in size, surrounded by mango and date farms, a rolling desert and some factories, it has a rather remarkable airport. The airport is quite unlike the ones found in most other small cities of the country.

Though not as immense and active as the ones in the country's much larger cities, the Rahim Yar Khan Airport does look exceptionally pristine.

A shiny, smooth road strewn by healthy green palm trees along its sides rapidly runs into the desert that lays just outside the city. The road then leads to, and abruptly ends at, an imposing palace standing tall smack dab in the middle of the desert.

The palace used to house members of Abu Dhabi's royal family whenever they used to land directly at the Rahim Yar Khan Airport in their private jets. Yes, the airport too was largely built by the royals.

In the mid-1970s, the desert of Rahim Yar Khan became a favourite hunting ground for rich Arab sheikhs and sultans of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Armed with trained falcons, shotguns, dogs and lots of cash to throw around, the Arab hunters were particularly interested in hunting and eating the houbara bustard.

In 1974, the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had begun to nurture close ties with oil-rich Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, hoping to obtain ‘petro-dollars’ from friendly sultans and sheikhs that he needed to bolster Pakistan's economy.

One of the many schemes that the Bhutto regime enacted to attract Arab hand-outs was to invite these sultans to hunt the Asian Bustard that were abundant in the vast arid lands of Sindh, southern Punjab and Balochistan.

The sultans were not disappointed. For a hefty fee they were given hunting permits by the government. They came with their hunting paraphernalia and began to freely hunt a bird whose meat they believed contained a potent aphrodisiac.

As the hunting trips of the sheikhs grew, so too did the number of their palatial residences in various cities of Sindh and the Punjab. One such massive place emerged in Karachi’s posh Defence Housing Authority area as well.

The massive palace in Karachi (built in the 1970s ).
The massive palace in Karachi (built in the 1970s ).

Funded by the Arabs, these palaces housed the hunters during their trips.

One of the first palaces to appear was the one in Rahim Yar Khan. The Emir of Abu Dhabi and the President of the UAE Sheikh Zayed wanted to arrive directly at his favourite hunting ground in the rickety city in his jet.

So in the late 1970s he shelled out a handsome sum of money to construct a modern airport in Rahim Yar Khan and a road that led directly to the palace built by him in the heart of the hunting area.

The road leading to the Rahim Yar Khan palace.
The road leading to the Rahim Yar Khan palace.

The practice of issuing hunting permits to wealthy sultans and sheikhs continued even after the Bhutto regime was toppled in a reactionary military coup by General Ziaul Haq in July 1977. In fact, the practice grew two-fold.

It wasn't until the early 1990s ─ when some local English dailies began to air the concerns of conservationists regarding the hunting of the Asian Bustard in Pakistan ─ that the issue really went public.

But their admonitions that the bustards were being hunted to extinction were largely ignored.

The hunters were tossing large sums of money into government coffers and also buying out members of the population in and around the hunting areas who, too, had begun to air their concerns. They were offered riyals and dirhams and promised jobs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.

The government finally imposed a quota on the number of bustards that the Arabs were allowed to shoot, but the hunters often exceeded these. No action was ever taken and the numbers of the bustards continued to dwindle.

Although voices against the practice did get a tad louder, it took another decade before an Arab hunter faced his first major protest in this respect.

In Jan 2015, a Saudi prince arrived in Pakistan with his entourage to hunt the bustards in the rocky deserts of Balochistan.

The Asian Bustard in Pakistan had already been placed on the endangered species list, but the prince was given a free rein to shoot almost a hundred birds.

This time, however, along with the English press, the populist Urdu print and electronic media also decried the practice. The social media also saw a concentrated uproar on the issue.

Protesting against bustard hunting.
Protesting against bustard hunting.

More interesting is the fact that the unprecedented outcry against bustard hunting by oil-rich Arabs turned into a symptom for another equally unprecedented (and more political) phenomenon: Since the 1980s, oil-rich Gulf States and Saudi Arabia were often criticised by Pakistan's intelligentsia for bankrolling various puritanical organisations in Pakistan bent upon imposing the strand of faith practised by in Saudi Arabia.

These accusations began to spill over into mainstream media in the early 2000s as Pakistan began to face a serious challenge from religious extremists in the wake of 9/11.

But things truly boiled over when the country and the media reacted angrily after armed fanatics attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar in Dec 2014.

Thus, the heated debate in mainstream media when the Saudi prince arrived with his falcons was a reflection of how many Pakistanis saw the hunting trip as yet another example of the conceit of the oil-rich states.

Interestingly, the bustards too were being seen as among the victims of this discord.

So much so that now, when the apex court has upheld a petition seeking cancellation of permits issued to Arab royals to hunt vulnerable birds like the ‘houbara bustard’, many commentators see the court's move as yet another indication of the paradigm shift that the state of Pakistan is sculpting when it comes to the country's internal and foreign policies. So although inadvertently, but we just might have saved the bustards from completely vanishing from the country’s hills and deserts.