THE Supreme Court recently reserved its verdict on the review petitions filed against the ban imposed on hunting the houbara bustard. Ever since the issue first came in the limelight last year, it has divided and polarised public opinion.
For many in Pakistan, the houbara bustard has grown into a symbol of our government’s infirmity. The government’s decision to appeal against the ban on hunting the houbara bustard has largely been viewed as an act to appease the Arab states. As a corollary, it has been assumed that doing so has only been in the interests of the Arabs. The state’s undue eagerness to reverse this ban when coupled with the popular belief that houbara bustard’s hunting is illegal and in violation of Pakistan’s international obligations, explains why many, in the public, view Pakistan’s response with grave contempt.
The houbara bustard, however, remains a classic case of the government mishandling a simple issue. While there may be an element of truth in the idea that the government is driven by a fear of falling out with Arab dignitaries (as comical as it might sound), it is nevertheless wrong to believe that the government has somehow acted only in the Arabs’ interests. Contrary to popular misconception, a complete ban on hunting houbara bustards is neither in the interests of Pakistan, nor does it serve any useful purpose in conserving the bird’s population.
Sustainable hunting is better than a blanket ban.
Put simply, conservation requires that the population of an endangered species should increase over time by breeding at a faster rate than hunting. In that sense, breeding is essential for conservation efforts. What is often overlooked is that breeding can only take place within the species’ habitat. Relying on the natural cycle of reproduction (in the wild) can be slow, particularly when there is a need to speed up conservation efforts. This is why, world-over, the support of the local community residing in, or around, a threatened species’ habitat is enlisted by encouraging it to not only protect the species but also to promote its breeding.
This appears simple but we can ask why people in interior Sindh or Balochistan, (where the houbara bustard migrates to) would be interested in preserving and breeding a bird that comes for a few months each year. Will these people — living in some of our most malnourished regions — not be tempted to hunt the houbara for its meat?
How does the government ensure that the community does not hunt endangered species? By imposing a complete ban? Possibly, but then, as other countries have discovered, imposing such bans are not only difficult to monitor and implement but counterproductive too, because it alienates the local community, forces them to hunt discreetly, and provides no incentives for breeding.
It is due to this counterproductive nature of blanket bans that sustainable hunting is internationally recognised as a conservational tool. The government issues permits for hunting threatened species bought by hunters at higher prices. Money received from issuing hunting permits is distributed amongst the local community that resides within the species’ habitat. The distribution of money serves as an incentive for the local community to not only protect the species but also promote its breeding. After all, the faster the species is bred, the greater its population and the greater the population, the more permits can be issued and the more permits are issued, the more money is available for distribution amongst the local community.
In 1998, for instance, trophy hunting was introduced to save Pakistan’s national animal, markhor. Generally, hunting permits for markhor range between $50,000 to $100,000. According to the KP Wildlife Department, 80pc of the amount generated through each permit is distributed amongst the local community and the remaining 20pc are spent on projects for improving biodiversity. The results are astonishing. The markhor population has increased from 275 in the early 1990s to over 3,500 in 2015.
This experience indicates that sustainable hunting is a potent tool in conserving threatened species. It also demonstrates that enlisting indigenous support is essential for the success of any conservation programme.
In this context, a complete ban on hunting is not likely to serve the purpose of protecting the houbara bustard’s population. Instead, a strictly regulated system of sustainable hunting, as required under Pakistan’s international obligations, that creates financial incentives for the local community is needed. In selling the permits, the government can not only impose limits on hunting but also impose additional obligations on the buyer to promote breeding too. This will not only improve conservational efforts but will also help in the economic development of communities in backward areas of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan.
The decision of the court is awaited — a complete ban or sustainable hunting?
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2016