ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Friday lifted a ban on the hunting of houbara bustard, a rare desert bird whose meat is prized among Arab sheikhs as an aphrodisiac.

A five-member larger bench of the apex court headed by Justice Mian Saqib Nisar announced the verdict on the review petitions filed by the federal and provincial governments against the ban.

In a 4-1 majority ruling, the court lifted the ban on hunting of the endangered bird however, Justice Qazi Faez Isa wrote a dissenting note opposing the bench's order.

The court held that there was "apparent error on the face of record" and set aside its Aug 19 judgment.

In its 16-page judgement, the top court said the "role of the judiciary is to interpret the laws and not to legislate".

"Examination of the laws clearly shows that permanent ban on hunting of houbara bustard is not envisaged."

“Hunting of protected animals is prohibited whereas licence is required to hunt game animals,” the verdict said, adding that provincial governments exercise the discretionary power to classify animals as ‘protected’ or ‘game’ species.

Balochistan Act, 2014 places houbara bustard both in protected and game animal categories, the court noted.

The Red List of International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) places houbara bustard in the category of “vulnerable” below “near threatened” and “least concern” categories and above “endangered”, “critically endangered”, “extinct in the wild” and“extinct” categories, the court said, adding that IUCN considers hunting primarily using falconry as a principal threat to its conservation.

"Even IUCN recognizes sustainable use of the natural resources," the court said, maintaining that "considering the economic backwardness of the areas where these migratory species land, it is very hard for conservation efforts to be successful without uplifting the economic well-being of those areas."

The Wildlife Department should take steps for the consevation of all threatened animals, the court said.

A three-judge bench of the apex court headed by then chief justice Jawwad S. Khawaja had on August 19 banned hunting of the houbara bustard in a decision welcomed by wildlife campaigners and conservationists. The court also ordered the cancellation of all existing permits in this regard.

The ban had resulted from a petition that recalled that Pakistan had imposed a permanent ban on the hunting of houbara bustards under the Third Schedule of the Pakistan Wildlife Ordinance 1971, after declaring the species a protected bird. But despite the ban, licenses or permits were being issued to VIP dignitaries of Gulf states for hunting the species.

Read: Satire — Diary of an Arab hunter

Pillar of foreign policy

In October, the federal government and governments of Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh asked the court to review its decision, with federal government terming the invitations to Arabs for houbara hunting a “cornerstone of [Pakistan's] foreign policy”.

The government of Sindh earlier this month had informed the Supreme Court that its order of imposing a ban on the hunting of houbara bustard was not implementable.

Sindh government’s counsel Farooq H. Naek had said that hunting of the bird was permitted for 10 days only.

Balochistan High Court in November 2014 cancelled all permits for hunting in the province, but its order has now been quashed by today's SC ruling.

'Sustainable hunting'

As the federal government concluded its arguments in the houbara bustard case earlier this month, the attorney general (AG) asked the Supreme Court to allow “sustainable hunting” of the bird.

The government did not want the order set aside in its entirety, just that the ban should not be perpetual, AG Salman Butt told SC at the time.

Wealthy hunting parties from the Gulf travel to Balochistan province every winter to kill the houbara bustard using hunting falcons, a practice that has sparked controversy in recent years because of the bird's dwindling numbers.

The issue has also cast a spotlight on traditionally close ties between Pakistan and its allies in the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan’s soil is regarded as an attractive wintering ground and milieu for the migratory birds which is also an attractive destination for hunters every year at the onset of winter. Consequently, a large number of vulnerable species like the houbara bustard from atrocious freezing regions of Siberia migrate to Pakistan and other countries.