For many years now, a handful of concerned journalists and citizens expressed outrage when every winter, dozens of princes from various Arab dynasties in the Middle East arrive to hunt the houbara bustard. A shy, ground dwelling bird, the houbara bustard is a vulnerable species that migrates to Pakistan in the autumn. Arab sheikhs, each accompanied by a large entourage, annually kill hundreds of houbaras followed by a local media outcry. The argument being that if it is illegal for Pakistanis to kill these birds why should the Arab sheikhs be allowed to do so?
Usually, no action would be taken. However, last week in a detailed landmark judgment, a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by the recently retired Chief Justice of Pakistan, Jawwad S. Khawaja, ordered the federal and the provincial governments not to grant any more licenses or permits to hunt the houbara bustard. The court further directed the provinces “to amend their respective wildlife laws to make them compliant with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and to not permit the hunting of any species that is either threatened with extinction or categorised as vulnerable.” Pakistan is signatory to both conventions so has an international obligation to comply.
Last year, after the slaughter of 2,100 houbara bustards in Balochistan by a member of the House of Saud, Prince Fahd Bin Sultan, a petition to ban the hunting of the houbara bustard was moved to the Supreme Court. This killing orgy took place over three weeks in January 2014 and was called a “Bustard Act” by one newspaper. The exact figure of the birds killed was revealed after a report was prepared by Jaffar Baloch, a Divisional Forest Officer of the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department, Chagai at Dalbandin.
This report leaked to the media and a news story written by environmental journalist Bhagwandas (who has over the years advocated a ban on houbara bustard hunting) caused a stir.
According to estimates, around 20,000 to 30,000 houbara bustards migrate to this region every year for six months. Houbara bustards are found in India, Iran, Afghanistan, Morocco and some Central Asian states, but only in Pakistan was hunting allowed. The government has allowed Arab royalty to hunt the birds 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 houbara bustards with his falcons. Over the years there has been a depletion of houbara bustards in Pakistan due to hunting and poaching, over-grazing by livestock and the expansion of agricultural areas into the desert.
With a landmark judgement, the judiciary finally saves the houbara
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 birds but for a 10-day maximum hunting period each season.
The killing of 2,100 houbara bustards over 21 days by the Saudi Royal was a clear violation of the regulations. According to the Balochistan Wildlife Act (1974), “All bustards are listed as Protected Animals; i.e., Animals which shall not be hunted, killed or captured.” To add insult to injury, the houbara bustard is officially the provincial bird of Balochistan.
The Supreme Court judgment last week declared the notification by the Sindh Forest and Wildlife Department that: “The hunting of houbara bustard would be allowed only with a special permit supported with a letter from Ministry of Foreign Affairs for allocation of an area,” as being against the law. The court pointed out that “The laws of Pakistan, of the provinces and Pakistan’s international treaty obligations are not saleable commodities, and in contending as much the governments debase, degrade and demean the citizens. If we do not abide by and respect our own laws and sovereignty, can we expect foreigners to do so?”
According to environmentalist Nuzhat Saadia Siddiqi who has been closely following the story, “What happened was that off and on, the news reports about houbara bustard hunting would be published in Pakistan but with the exception of Bhagwandas, no one would really look into it seriously. His news report about the Arab Prince killing 2,100 houbara bustards came out in April 2014 and shook everyone up. I was working at WWF-Pakistan as the communications coordinator at the time, so I started looking into the laws and shared the news item with our Director General. Everyone was shocked at the violation of the bag limit, etc; and we all got into further exploring the issue. Despite Balochistan’s wildlife laws, they were exempting certain species.
We raised this issue with the international media and it soon became a case about our sovereignty. More and more people started questioning why foreigners were allowed to come and destroy our natural resources. There was a chain reaction and it was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court”.
Siddiqui, who now works at the NGO for women, Shirkat Gah, says: “This has been a victory for not just the houbara bustards, which have plenty of natural predators and for whom it is tough enough to breed, but it is definitely a win for our judicial system. No one took serious notice of wildlife laws until now. This is a landmark judgment and all credit goes to the media, the activists, the lawyers and the Supreme Court judges.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 20th, 2015