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VIEW: Houbara Bustards: dead birds walking? — Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 11, 2010
Published in SHE Magazine Jan 2011

Experts disagree over the exact date when the houbara bustard might join the ranks of the spectacled cormorant, caspian tiger and woolly rhinoceros — but most agree that it is probably headed that way. The houbara has been projected as an aphrodisiac — endangered, protected, doomed — in need of conservation and on the fast track towards extinction. Because, come winter, when Pakistan gets ready to host one class of migratory birds, it also prepares to welcome several dignitaries from neighbouring Arab countries. The houbara comes for the climate; the Arabs come for the houbara. Armed with permits and falcons, visiting Arabs proceed to hunt in designated areas and, if tabloids are to be believed, their sole interest in the sport lies in what the poor bird’s meat contains and not the hunt itself. The tabloids would be surprised to learn that while the royal hunters’ main motivation is the thrill of the sport, the houbara’s preservation is also their major concern. As for the aphrodisiac part, it is not true.

The houbara is under attack on multiple fronts. The birds are endangered not just because of falconry but also due to domestic abuse (illegal netting, trapping and poaching) as well as natural causes. In the netting, trapping and shooting of game birds, the odds are heavily stacked against the prey while the opposite is true in falconry. Only a very agile and well-trained falcon can take down a houbara, which has a better than even chance to escape unscathed. It is this challenge that has made falconry a noble sport, fit for royalty. The houbara may be many things — it is moody, scares easily and is picky about mates (takes three to five years to settle down again). And yes, it is coveted as a game bird, but the hunters vehemently deny that the bird is sought after for its alleged aphrodisiac properties, insisting that for them falconry is more than a sport — it is tradition.

Recently, a very small passage in a local daily was devoted to the environment and wildlife conservation efforts in Pakistan on the UAE’s 39th anniversary on December 2, 2010 that quoted HH Sheikh Zayed (President of the UAE) as saying, “Whatever we take from nature, we return to nature.” The negative aspects of the hunt get annual coverage but the UAE would, for once, like to highlight the positives, beginning with their role in conservation.

According to a report, the UAE is the first country to have initiated measures to protect the endangered houbara bustard; hunting may be their passion but conservation is their foremost concern. If the houbara bustard becomes extinct, their centuries old lifestyle dies with it and they see themselves as one of the principal stakeholders in ensuring survival of the species.

That the houbara has been hunted to extinction in their homeland — the deserts of Arabia — make them empathise with their hosts. The UAE government is funding studies to successfully breed houbaras in captivity and overseeing efforts to have them released in the wild. They have established an ultramodern houbara breeding facility in their own country where houbara chicks are raised and later released into the wild, validating their leader’s claim. Besides, in a conscious effort to conserve the houbara population and prevent over-hunting, the royal dignitaries ensure that the number of hunting teams accompanying the entourage is limited and each hunting party is given a small quota of birds that they cannot exceed during the entire season.

The UAE dignitaries who visit Pakistan for falconry spend a colossal amount of money during their stay. What may appear as frivolous expenditure actually helps stimulate the local economy of one of the poorer regions of Pakistan. They have made sizeable investments in social welfare projects like housing schemes, hospitals and communication networks besides providing other facilities in places like Rahimyar Khan, Larkana and Cholistan, which are their annual haunts.

Some conservationists stock up on ammunition using bleak statistics, hoping to jolt the government of Pakistan into action and persuade hunters to give up their vocation. The same reports paint the Arabs as reckless, indifferent, inconsiderate and above the law. If such tirades continue, the UAE royals will take their hunt elsewhere. UAE, which has been described as “the single largest investor in Pakistan”, has deep ties to the land and its people and their annual trek is out of love for the host country as much as their fondness for the sport. For years, they have roughed it out in the desert, shared their kills with the locals and, of course, brought in much needed revenue — a lot of it. For them, the allure lies in being able to relive the Bedouin lifestyle and stay in touch with their roots.

While the UAE has taken concrete steps to preserve and promote the houbara bustard population, Pakistan must continue to ensure that laws that ban illegal hunting and trapping are strictly implemented. Or else, the houbaras are dead birds walking.

Images taken from


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