The hunting season for the endangered houbara bustard is underway. The migratory bird arrives in Pakistan this time of the year. Hunting is officially banned but exceptions are made for Arab royals for their hunting trips.
This year the federal government has issued special permits to various Arab dignitaries including the King of Bahrain and Emir of Qatar to hunt the internationally-protected bird. The wealthy Arabs prize the houbara bustard as a sport but also because the meat is considered an aphrodisiac.
These hunting practices are rather controversial and ruthless. The government issues over two dozen special permits allowing a hunter to shoot a hundred birds during a ten-day period in the hunting season. This is never implemented and often exceeds the limit, while the wildlife department appears helpless and unable to arrest the influential hunters.
These birds originally belong to the arid Central Asian region and migrate to relatively-warm weather in winter, but their population has dwindled in recent years. These are now considered ‘vulnerable’ under nature conservation conventions. The bird was once hunted to near-extinction in the Middle East by poachers and falconers until they came to search in Pakistan.
The government issues these permit as part of ‘soft diplomacy’ to maintain bilateral ties with Gulf States. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently visited Bahrain where he was given the nation’s highest civilian award. Pakistan has brotherly relations with Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. The question arises whether official diplomatic relations should be maintained at the cost of the endangered bird.
In 2015, the Supreme Court issued a blanket ban on hunting houbara bustards, but the government quietly issued permits disguised as ‘partridge hunting’ licenses. There were also reports in 2014 that a Saudi prince killed over 2000 birds sparking an outcry. Now the activities are more settled and don’t receive the kind of outrage as before.
Many defend the government decision as it benefits the locals who arrange these hunting trips, identify locations and guard the bird’s nesting spots. These locals are handsomely paid and their entire families depend on their earnings for the entire year. This also generates revenues for provincial governments that charge a hefty fee of $100,000 for a houbara bustard license and other fowl species.
Earlier this month, several foreigners including Qataris were arrested in Balochistan for hunting without a permit, while similar incidents have occurred before. These efforts are inadequate. Allowing the sport just to appease Middle East dignitaries is pushing the rare bird breed towards extinction.