By Shreya Dasgupta
In a three week hunting safari between January 11th and 31st of this year, Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his party allegedly shot down 2,100 Asian Houbara bustards (Chlamydotis macqueenii) in Balochistan, Pakistan. Scientists aren't certain how many Houbara bustards survive today, but their best estimate is around 100,000 and declining.
Hunting of Houbaras in Pakistan is illegal. But the Pakistani government issued special permits to the Arab royal and senior officials to hunt these migratory birds. Pakistan's Ministry for Foreign Affairs also issued a "code of conduct" to ensure sustainable hunting and protection of the birds—one that states that hunting will be permitted for a period of 10 days, with a limit of a 100 birds.
The Prince and his party, however, hunted about 100 birds on an average per day. A report by Pakistan's environmental journalist Bhagwandas in Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper, said that the Prince hunted in both non-protected and protected areas. For instance, his party killed about 582 bustards over a six day period inside the Koh-i-Sultan state forest in Pakistan.
But this is not very unusual.
"Arabian countries have hunting concession areas across parts of South Pakistan where Houbaras winter," Nigel Collar, Chair of the IUCN Bustard Specialist Group told mongabay.com. "Many have built palaces there in which to stay during the hunting season."
The Houbara bustard is currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. But every winter, wealthy Arab royals and ministers fly into Pakistan in their private jets, set up large, luxurious camps, and hunt several thousand Houbaras bustard. Why? Because these desert birds are considered to be aphrodisiacs.
Houbara-hunting through falconry has been a part of Bedouin tradition for generations. But by the 1960s, the Arabs had hunted out most of the Houbaras from the Middle East. To continue their Houbara sport-hunting culture they turned to Pakistan. In exchange for billions of dollars that they give to Pakistan as aid, the Arabs get free passes for mass-decimation of the birds. Pakistanis, on the other hand, are prosecuted if caught hunting these ground-dwelling birds.
Pakistan's neighbor, India, too invited Arab falconers to hunt Houbaras in the 1970s. But as a result of massive public outrage, a High Court order stayed all future Houbara hunting in India. India-based conservation groups are now trying to pressure the Pakistani government to follow suit, but to date without effect.
In a bid to reintroduce the Asian Houbaras into the wild, Saudi Arabia has also invested billions of dollars for captive breeding. According to Collar, however, the captive population is still too small to be hunted. As a result, hunters seek Houbaras elsewhere.
Falconry and poaching have resulted in a drastic decline of Houbara populations in most of their wintering ranges in Asia. A press release by WWF-Pakistan condemned the hunting and said that the current population status of these birds in Pakistan is not known and needs urgent evaluation.
Collar appears hopeful that solutions can be reached.
"The international conservation community is ready to work with Arab countries, through the Convention on Migratory Species and other agreements and mechanisms, in order to develop systems of management that will allow this hunting to go on (it cannot be stopped, except by the extinction of the Houbara) but that will also ensure that the Houbara survives in very good numbers as a truly sustainable source. This is the fundamental message we need to get across," he said.