Is Pakistan okay with its houbara bustards being hunted to benefit “foreign policy”?
1. A sovereign government – despite being a signatory to international treaties protecting endangered species – issues permits to Arab royalty to hunt an endangered species of bird within its borders as a way of staying on good terms with the royals.
2. Locals rejoice because thousands are employed to wait on these lavish expeditions of the royals, who, in turn, will finance the building of local hospitals, educational institutions, mosques and religious seminaries.
This is what is currently happening in Pakistan. Although the construction purported to be financed is being questioned by some, Arab money is definitely benefiting some in the country in return for these hunting privileges. The particular form of hunting used is the ancient sport of falconry. (Birds are also trapped by some locals and sold to smugglers, who then transport them to the Gulf States where they are used to train falcons.)
Falconry hunting symbolises a long standing ancestral tradition of gathering meat and is closely tied with the nomadic Bedouin culture, which relied heavily on falcons to find food in desert lands. The bird in question is the houbara bustard, itself a rather regal-looking bird with its expansive headdress.
It was in the 1970s that this bird became popular among the royals to pursue.
Because the royals believe the meat of this bird has ‘aphrodisiac properties’. (In realty, these ‘properties’ are the stuff of myth.)
After the houbara bustard populations were just short of being decimated in their home countries, the Arab hunters had to look elsewhere for the coveted bird. It migrates along several routes from Mongolia, Siberia and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) towards its breeding areas in November and December, some of which are in Pakistan (Balochistan, South Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P)). The hunters found their way there in the 1970s, where the birds are known locally as tiloor.
There are only 50,000-100,000 of the houbara bustard remaining in the world according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but only because the global population has been nurtured through conservation and specialised breeding efforts. The Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) have estimated the natural death rate of the bird to be 3.28 per cent, while death due to hunting accounts for more than 73 per cent.
The practice of issuing special permits to wealthy Arab princes started in the reign of General Ayub Khan, the military dictator who was then president of Pakistan. In recent years, the holders of these special permits were only limited to hunting a maximum of 100 tiloor in one session. However, it seems that Arab Sheikhs hunt this rare bird with impunity. In a leaked report, Chagai District’s Forest Officer stated that Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz and his entourage killed 2,100 houbara over 21 days in 2014 – this being made a possibility despite the fact that this area in Balochistan is considered a ‘wildlife refuge’.
Over the years, Arab princes and Sheikhs have been lavish with their gifts and have paid off anyone concerned in the matter. In return, more than 70 wildlife sanctuaries and game parks have been set aside for them.
Pakistan is a signatory to both the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention) and the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora & Fauna (CITES) where the houbara bustard is listed as an endangered migratory bird. Ironically, the Arab countries whose citizens are granted these hunting privileges are also signatories to one or both conventions.
Shouldn’t our foreign policy make considerations based on assurances that it is not compromising a country’s citizenry, nor its environment, nor the international treaties to which it is a signatory. The fact is that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Qatar are home to a large number of Pakistani expatriate workers. Remittances by these expat workers continue to prop up the country’s foreign exchange reserves, so the government thinks that somehow such compromises are necessary for our country’s overall prosperity.
To their credit there have been some advances that have been made to reprimand the issue; Pakistan’s citizens have challenged this threat to the houbara bustard, not to mention international petitions that have been circulating as well. The result was that finally, in November 2014, the Balochistan High Court imposed a ban on the hunting of the endangered houbara and cancelled all licenses. However, the federal government ignored the ban, and issued special permits to 29 Arab royals in 2015 with exclusive allocations of designated land assigned to these five countries:
- Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud
- Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud
- Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan
- Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
- Sultan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
- Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
- Sultan bin Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
- Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum
- Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum
- Ahmed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum
- Rashid bin Khalifa Al-Maktoum
- Nasir Abdullah Lootah
- Hamid bin Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa
- Ebrahim bin Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa
- Abdullah bin Salman Al-Khalifa
- Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa
- Mohammad bin Hamad Al-Khalifa
- Ahmed bin Ali Al-Khalifa
- Tamin bin Hamad Al-Thani
- Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani
- Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani
- Mohammad bin Khalifa Al-Thani
- Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani
- Falah bin Jassim bin Jabor Al-Thani
- Ali bin Abdullah Al-Thani
- Khalid bin Thani Al-Thani
- Thani bin Abdul Aziz Al-Thani
- Mohammad binAli bin Abdullah Al-Thani
- Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani
Publicly, it was said that the Sheikhs were travelling to Pakistan on a diplomatic mission rather than on a hunting mission.
The case was referred to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and, on August 19, 2015, a ban was imposed on further hunting.
Then, in October 2015, the ministry of foreign affairs, in a review petition filed in the apex court, maintained that,
“Inviting Arabs to hunt houbara bustard in different parts of the country is a pillar of foreign policy.”
On January 22, 2016, after examining the said petition, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on hunting of the houbara. One Pakistani diplomat serving in an Arab country condoned the decision because it would serve as a binding force in forming bilateral ties with Arab countries.
The day after the Supreme Court’s verdict overturning the hunting ban, Imran Khan, chairman of K-P’s ruling party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)), requested that the K-P government not lift the ban. He posted on Twitter,
Never thought I would see the day when hunting of the endangered Houbara Bustard would become a 'pillar of our foreign policy'. 1/2
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) January 23, 2016
One thing worth acknowledging is that third-term Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also holds the seat of Foreign Minister. Quick recap: In 1999, the then-Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the government of Nawaz Sharif in a military coup, who was welcomed by the Saudi ruler at the time and spent his days of exile in the Gulf until 2007.
Apart from the previous notion, there are reports that these Arab royals have adorned our country by building roads, schools, madrassas and mosques, as well as several international-standard airstrips in unlikely places. But in speaking to the former Speaker of the Balochistan Assembly, Akram Dashti, it was revealed that:
“My constituency [PB-50, Dasht-District Kech] is known as a hunting ground of Arab princes but I have seen no development in my district nor in my division… it may be that Arab princes gifted some watches and one or two cars to a few powerful people who had hosted them.”
He also pointed out,
“I have gone through the foreign policies of all countries that claim to protect endangered birds and wildlife, but have found no other country that used permitting the hunting of this rare bird as a ‘pillar’ of its foreign policy”.
When questioned about these permits, Pakistani foreign policy expert and author, Malik Siraj Akbar, remarked,
“I think the Arabs do treat Pakistan as a colony. The only difference is that they pay Pakistan for it. So, not surprised. But it is disgraceful.” He emphasised that, “nobody from Balochistan voted to create such a pillar of the foreign policy.”
“From a moral standpoint, it is wrong. A bunch of rich people should not be allowed to come and harm the wildlife only because they have the money.”
And yet again, in February of this year, a Saudi prince arrived in Chagai District to hunt the hapless bird.
Will this actually bolster Pakistan’s relations with the Arabs?
It would be incredibly tragic if this is what it takes to make a difference and one that’s advances seem to be falling on deaf ears; Pakistan has tried playing the role of mediator recently when tensions escalated between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However Saudi rulers did not seem to exhibit any indication that it is ready to resolve tensions with Iran under Pakistan’s lead.
One of the sitting justices wrote a dissenting opinion citing improper makeup of the bench reviewing the matter. And lawyer, Azhar Saddique, strongly supports this dissenting opinion, urging that the Chief Justice place the houbara bustard case before a full bench of 17 judges in order that the citizens of Pakistan be made aware of the truth of the matter, and their opinions made relevant.
Let this not be the end of it. Whether the underlying reasons for these massacres is a hidden debt owed to Saudi Arabia, remittances, or a favour for the amounts of bribes our country has accepted under the façade of ‘gifts’ and ‘investment’, what is apparent is that our government is treating the welfare of the country and compromising it in the form of a business venture. We, as people, need to make clear to everyone involved, including each other, that massacring animals and subjecting them to cruelty is not the price we are willing to pay.
Perhaps it is also time to resurrect the use of the petition to make sure that the voice of the people is heard.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.