It seems that humans and animals alike bear the brunt of maleficent intentions of the uber-rich. Nowhere does this stand truer than in Pakistan, where the Houbara Bustard is the latest in a long series of rare and endangered species on the hunting list of foreign “dignitaries”.
The Houbara Bustard is a migratory bird whose population extends from Egypt (East of the Nile) through the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asian states, Russia and Mongolia to China. The International Union for Conservation of Nature includes the bird on its ‘red list’ of threatened species, estimating there are fewer than 97,000 left globally and are vanishing quickly. The main reasons for these low figures are climate change, habitat loss and degradation and most of all, unrestrained hunting. They are illegally hunted and trapped, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, and transported to Arabia for training falcons to hunt and for their meat.
Although the bird is protected internationally, the government has been allowing Arab royalty to hunt the bird in Pakistan since the 1960s. Ironically, this bird is a protected species in Saudi Arabia itself, especially in the Al-Sayd Reserve. Even more shameful is the fact that the Houbara Bustard is officially the provincial bird of Balochistan.
In early 2014, a news item by veteran environmental journalist Bhagwandas was published in Dawn newspaper. It was based on a report titled ‘Visit of Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud regarding hunting of Houbara Bustard’ prepared by Jaffar Baloch (then divisional forest officer of the Balochistan forest and wildlife department, Chagai at Dalbandin). It highlighted that despite Houbara hunting being banned in Pakistan, special permits had been issued to Saudi prince Fahad bin Sultan and his party at the behest of the Foreign Office in January 2014. Following that, the group went on a hunting orgy, killing almost 2,100 Houbaras within 21 days. Permit holders can theoretically hunt a maximum of 100 Houbaras over 10 days (per hunting season), but only in certain areas. The Saudi royals hunted ten times more birds than permitted, that too in protected areas. It goes without saying that they were not brought to justice for their transgressions. However, according to some sources, Jaffar Baloch was “transferred” to another department as reward for his honesty.
Voices were raised in some quarters against this act. A provincial High Court in Balochistan in November last year cancelled all permits for hunting in the province and on 11 February 2015, a constitutional petition was filed in Islamabad High Court (IHC) ,seeking cancellation of Houbara Bustard hunting permits issued for 2015. Apparently these steps mean little to the government as according to sources, Saudi hunting parties have once again started converging in Balochistan, presumably to wipe out the remaining Houbara population. A report published in Dawn quoted a senior provincial government official that Prince Fahd bin Sultan and his companions had once again arrived in Dalbandin for hunting Houbara bustard and may even have started their hunt. This was confirmed by officials in the paramilitary Balochistan Levies and forest department. The government denies these reports, saying that they had come to oversee development activities in the area.
The issue has stirred controversy on social media and among youth activists in the province. As reported in Tribune, protests were held in front of Quetta Press Club against the hunting of Houbara Bustard by members of Civil Society and they chanted slogans against the Arab hunters and the government. It is unlikely, however, that the government will pay heed to their demands, choosing instead to listen to the jingle of Petro-Dollars.