Arab royal families have begun their annual hunt of the large Houbara Bustard bird in southwestern Pakistan. For years, authorities have granted hunting permits to wealthy sportsmen, who use trained falcons to kill the migratory bird. But as the Houbara’s population has dwindled, the hunting permits have not, which this year has sparked a legal and political backlash.
Thousands of Houbara Bustards enter southern and southwestern Pakistani provinces in winter to flee icy temperatures of the Central Asian regions. Many arrive in Baluchistan province, where for many years they have been hunted by Arab sheikhs who prize the bird’s meat as an aphrodisiac.
Pakistan began issuing permits to Houbara hunters from the Gulf countries in the 1970s. It was initially seen a way to forge diplomatic ties with them after rival India imposed a ban on hunting the bird.
But the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now classifies the Houbara Bustard as “vulnerable.” Hammad Naqi Khan of the Pakistan chapter of the World Wide Fund (WWF) argues it should not be hunted at all.
“If you look at the ICUN’s red list, it is listed as vulnerable. It is also listed in CITES, which is an international agreement on endangered species. So, obviously when it is vulnerable, it is vulnerable to hunting, poaching,” said Khan.
Hunters need a government-issued permit to kill the bird, about half the size of a turkey. Every year, Pakistan grants permits to what it refers to as “Arab dignitaries from the friendly Gulf countries.” Each visiting license holder is given 10 days to kill not more than 100 birds, which they hunt using trained falcons.
Government officers join the hunting parties to ensure the limits are obeyed. But critics, like attorney Baz Mohammad Kakar, who is arguing against the permits in the Baluchistan court, say the government has always done a poor job of enforcing quotas.
“When the Arab dignitaries and all those come, there are specific areas and nobody can come into that area. It is impossible for a commoner, even for a government official enter in the area,” said Kakar.
This past April, leaked official documents revealed a Saudi prince killed 2,100 Houbara Bustards during an extended three-week hunt. The revelation outraged conservationists, sparking new legal challenges against issuing new permits.
But that did not stop the permits or the hunting this year.
Permits have already been issued to hunting parties from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. But most of the licenses have reportedly been issued to Qatar’s royal family.
Local officials told VOA this year’s hunting season is under way in the remote Mousa Khail district of Baluchistan, spearheaded by a crown prince from Qatar’s royal family. Other hunts are also under way elsewhere in the province. All of the hunting parties have tight security in place to prevent anyone from disturbing them.
The Baluchistan provincial court has said the federal government’s new hunting permits violate both local laws and international commitments. This week, it ordered local authorities to enforce the ban on hunts.
Provincial Home Secretary Akbar Durrani said his office is appealing the ruling, but he confirmed to VOA that in the meantime authorities are helping to ensure the hunts go forward.
“Our responsibility is to provide maximum security to these foreign dignitaries by establishing inner cordons and outer cordons around the hunting zone because any security lapse can undermine our relations [with countries hunting parties belonged to],” said Durrani.
The decision to grant hunting permits to Arab royalty has long been a decision made at the top levels of the Pakistani government. This month the Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, was asked who is involved.
“The decisions to allocate areas for hunting are not taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There is a committee constituted by the prime minister, which is headed by the finance minister, which takes decisions and allocates areas,” said Aslam.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent nearly seven years in political exile in Saudi Arabia and has close personal ties with royal families of Gulf countries. His predecessor, Asif Ali Zardari, also had similar ties with the Arab ruling elite, as have several other previous leaders.
The prime minister’s office has not responded to questions about its role in the permitting process, but the issue is getting taken up by opposition lawmakers in the national parliament, including Nafisa Shah.
“There are two issues, one is of course that the bird is endangered and the second is that large territories of Pakistan are just handed out without any conditions, not for one or two days but sometimes even for months. But the governments have been doing this repeatedly since the 1970s. It was considered a way of extending diplomatic relations with these countries, but I think times have changed and I think the government must rethink on this policy,” said Shah.
In a debate in the national parliament earlier this month, a government minister defended the police practice of issuing hunting licenses, saying Pakistan highly values its diplomatic ties with the Gulf countries because hundreds of thousands of expatriate Pakistanis work there and send billions of dollars in remittances every year to help the cash-strapped national economy.