The houbara bustard is a highly regarded bird, but perhaps it too would be surprised to learn that it is a cornerstone of Pakistani foreign policy.
That rather astonishing claim has been made as part of the federal government’s attempt to have overturned a Supreme Court edict last month banning any governments, provincial or federal, from issuing special hunting permits.
With the migratory season beginning next month and Arab leaders likely keen on securing their hunting permits here, the government appears to have been prompted into action, but in a typically ham-fisted manner.
To be sure, there are several legal issues here, both regarding the status of the houbara bustard and whether the Supreme Court order overstepped its authority by issuing the blanket ban.
While local classifications can be manipulated by the authorities it is worth noting that the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the particular variant of the bustard hunted in Pakistan as ‘threatened’ — a classification below ‘endangered’ and ‘critically endangered’.
Moreover, the government’s review petition appears to make a reasonable case that wildlife laws grants the classifying authority to provincial governments. There is little indication that the existing classification of the bird in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh is contrary to scientific evidence.
The problem is not that limited hunting of the houbara bustard is unacceptable. The problem is that — as the federal government has so crassly indicated in its review petition — governments here are keen to oblige Arab royals and leaders. That means issuing excessive hunting permits and doing nothing to ensure hunting parties comply with the conditions of the permits and not grossly exceed their quotas.
It was those excesses that led to a petition against the Sindh government’s decision to grant hunting permits last year and appears to have prompted first the Sindh High Court and then the Supreme Court into protecting a bird whose numbers are declining.
It remains to be seen how the Supreme Court will deal with the federal government’s objections to the hunting ban. Already, however, in linking the ban to struggles on the foreign policy front with the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries, the government has opened itself to ridicule.
A far more sensible approach would have been to submit, along with the core legal arguments, a detailed plan on how the provincial and federal governments would ensure that only limited hunting in strict compliance with licence conditions will be allowed and what fresh conservation steps will be taken to protect the migratory birds.
The houbara bustard is a national treasure, not a cornerstone of foreign policy. Perhaps the PML-N needs to rethink it approach to policy, local and foreign — it increasingly appears feckless in both.
Published in Dawn, October 19th , 2015