KARACHI, Nov 23: As the colder winds start to blow announcing the beginning of winter and the country gets ready to welcome its annual visitors, the migratory birds which, avoiding the harsh weather conditions back home in Central Asia, come to winter here in a comparatively warm environment.

One of the most important among the winter visitors to Pakistan is the internationally protected houbara bustard. But as soon as the birds of the highly rare species arrive, another kind of visitor – foreign falconers – also descend on the country to hunt the hapless bustard, which winters in the arid zones and desert regions of the country.

According to wildlife experts, the houbara bustard is primarily a resident of the colder Central Asian regions of the Kyzyl Kum, which lies east of the Aral Sea in the former USSR and follows the Indus Flyway, one of the most important routes taken by migratory birds during their annual journey to the warmer South Asian regions.

Earlier, it used to go as far south as the Arabian Peninsula, but due to widespread hunting carried out by the local falconers the entire migratory population going to the Arabian Peninsula had been wiped out. Hence, due to their self-preservation instinct, the birds stopped going there. But when the Gulf falconers could not find the houbaras visiting their region, they started looking elsewhere. That is why their focus shifted to Pakistan, which is one of the biggest recipients of the migratory houbara population, said a source.

Pakistan is a signatory to various international conservation conventions, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, Convention on Migratory Bird Species, the Bonn Convention, etc, and is morally bound to protect the houbara. But the officials concerned have done little to implement the country’s international commitments.

The trapping, netting and trade of the houbara is banned under the local wildlife protection laws. Its hunting is also banned for natives, while the government issues special hunting permits to foreign falconers. The interest of the Gulf falconers in hunting the houbara is based on a myth – though not supported by any scientific evidence – that the bird’s meat has aphrodisiac qualities.

Cruel sport

There are two ways, both equally cruel, through which the houbara is hunted. According to one method, the more traditional one, when camel-riding hunters spot a bustard, whose colour is almost identical to its habitat, they form a circle around it and start moving in slowly, shooting it at close range to cause instant death. This method, however, is not used by the foreign falconers.

The other method is far bloodier, in which falcons are used to attack and capture the bird. The sport turns into a massacre when radar and radio-equipped scouts riding high-tech desert range vehicles are let loose to spot the quarry. Once spotted, the falcons, sometimes worth millions of rupees, move in for the kill.

Weighing between 1.7 and 2.4kg, the houbara has a natural defence mechanism whereby it squirts dark green slime when under attack. This device seldom works with the falcons. However, once a falcon is hit by the gummy substance, it will never be willing to pursue the bird again. Though the foreign falconers can only hunt up to 200 birds, the bag limit is rarely observed.

Lacklustre efforts

Keeping in view the precarious condition of the houbara, the government has decided to issue only two special hunting permits per country, but the condition is rarely followed. And though the politicians and government officials, who have reportedly been influenced by the largesse doled out by the wealthy foreign hunters, have not been successful in controlling the genocide of the bird, the role of the conservation NGOs has also been far from ideal.

Sources recalled that once an international NGO launched a campaign to protect the houbara, which immediately gained momentum and public support. But soon enough the government as well as the falconers wooed the NGO’s top brass — mostly comprising businessmen — with lucrative contracts and licences. The campaign was abruptly stopped.

It is high time a sincere strategy was formulated to save the houbara bustard from extinction so that a substantial population is left for the future generations.

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