Arab princes flout hunting ban on vulnerable birds, official says

By Malik Achakzai   |   Feb. 25, 2015 at 11:12 AM
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Feb. 25 (News Lens Pakistan) QUETTA-- A new ban on hunting houbara bustards, migratory birds that fly to southwestern Pakistan during northern hemisphere winters, is being flouted by Arab princes who have long been given extraordinary privileges by Pakistani authorities to hunt the bird annually, according to an official of the Balochistan provincial Forest and Wildlife Department.

The Balochistan High Court imposed the ban in November, declaring that the allocation of areas in the province "for hunting of the houbara bustard in Balochistan is illegal," a statement from the court read.

Pakistan has long had warm relations with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is particularly close with Saudi Arabia, where he spent nearly seven years in exile after former military chief Pervez Musharraf toppled him in a coup. These hunts also take place in parts of Sindh province in the south and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the northwest. These hunts have been going on since the end of the Taliban era, when the Arab states focused more attention on Pakistan, as the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan banned the Arabs from hunting houbara bustards there.

The houbara bustard is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

Zubair Khan, a division officer in the Forest and Wildlife Department said by phone the Gulf state princes from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had been leading a hunt since Jan. 3 in Loralai district, a rural area 130 miles northeast of the capital, Quetta.

"Some 10 to 15 houbara bustards have reportedly been killed. No one from the Forestry and Wildlife Department has accompanied the hunt, as it is has been illegal to hunt houbara bustards since the court decision," Khan told News Lens Pakistan.

A party of Qatari princes arrived in Musakhel district, a hilly district in the northeast corner of Balochistan, neighboring Loralai district in December.

"The Qatar sheikhs have been hunting houbara bustards since their arrival on Dec. 10. They have been catching six to 12 of the birds on a daily basis," Musakhel activist Mustafa Zamarai said.

Maulana Sarwar Musakhel, a former provincial legislator who belongs to the religious party Jamiat Ulema Islam, said officials had violated the court ban.

"The Balochistan High Court decision is being violated by local government officials, because those officials are providing security to the sheikhs and the houbara bustard hunt is at its peak," Musakhel told News Lens Pakistan.

"The government and its forestry department are the main violators of court decisions. Meanwhile I have advised locals and followers not to allow the hunters," he said.

Zamari and Musakhel contacted Deputy Commissioner Agha Nabeel Akhter and reported the violation of the hunting ban, "but the deputy commissioner did not listen to anybody, he had himself accompanied the hunting party," Zamari told News Lens Pakistan.

Numerous attempts to contact the deputy commissioner by phone were unsuccessful.

Ubaidullah Jan Babat, a Provincial Assembly member from Loralai, who is an adviser on forestry and wildlife to the province's chief minister, Abdul Malik Baloch, would not answer questions about the hunting of houbara bustards when he was contacted by phone by News Lens Pakistan.

However, he told reporters in the provincial capital Quetta, "We [the Forest and Wildlife Department] have never allowed any Arab prince to hunt houbara bustards. In this way we fully implement the Balochistan High Court decision."

"Arabs are not here for hunting houbara bustards. They visit the development organizations, hospitals, and so forth in different regions of the Balochistan," Babat said.

Houbara bustards migrate to the plains of Balochistan during November and December, said Faiz Kakar, a program manager from the Balochistan branch of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"Houbara bustards are migratory birds. They fly from central Asia to the grounds of Balochistan and surrounding areas," Kakar said.

"The birds breed in these areas. They travel here for their breeding season," he said.

Local Pashtun and Baloch elders from across Balochistan have ties with the Arab princes, said Mohammad Ebrahim, a local facilitator for Arab hunters.

"As they get permits from the government for houbara bustard hunts, they recruit an informal organization of local workers headed by the Pashtun and Baloch elders.

Nasibullah Khan, a resident of Killa Saifullah, a Balochistan district bordering Loralai and Afghanistan, worked with Arabs between 2011 and 2013 to facilitate hunts.

Khan's work starts six months prior to the Arab princes' visit. He and his friends look after the birds' nests and prevent local hunters from entering particular areas and shooting guns.

"We have to keep everything calm because the birds are easily scared and would not stay for long if they were disturbed by noise," Khan said.

He said Arab sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar arrive for a day in SUVs and Land Cruisers, waiting for a signal that a houbara bustard has been spotted.

"The prince comes out of the car and releases his falcon. The falcon follows the bustard and catches it."

Sometimes it takes half an hour to control the bird.

Khan earns $50 for each houbara bustard he finds, and earns $150 as a monthly wage otherwise.

"These Arabs are arrogant. They don't even shake hands with us. They cut the caught bird's throat and then leave the bird in pieces. They bring its wings back home with them."

"People said the wings were good for enhancing sexual prowess," Khan said.

For the first time, wildlife conservation organizations, nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups, political parties, and courts around Pakistan are united in trying to protect the houbara bustard and cancel the hunting permits allotted to the Gulf states' royal families, Kakar said.

Tribal elder Sardar Babar, 30, from Musakhel District opposes any kind of hunting.

"The beauty of the deserted plains of Balochistan lies in its wildlife," Babar told News Lens Pakistan.

"We, the elders, do not agree with the practice of granting hunting permits to Arabs who hunt the houbara bustard."

"The number of houbara bustards has increased in my area this year as no Arabs have arrived so far," Jalal Khan, a local hunter from Killa Saifullah district, told News Lens Pakistan, adding, "Locals cannot hunt houbara bustard in the way Arabs do with falcons."

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