CHAGAI, Balochistan, Pakistan––Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and his retinue in January 2014 killed 2,100 rare houbara bustards during a three-week hunting trip to Pakistan, the Karachi online newspaper Dawn revealed on April 21, 2014.
More than 1,600 of the rare giant birds were killed in nominally protected habitat.
Dawn published the findings of Jaffar Baloch, divisional forest officer of the Balochistan forest and wildlife department, Chagai at Dalbandin, who assembled the details in a February 4, 2014 report to higher-ups.
The higher-ups have apparently done nothing in response to the revelations, but had earlier announced that there is to be no bustard hunting season in 2015, to allow the population to recover.
Houbara bustards are protected under a variety of international treaties, and may not be hunted by Pakistanis, but the government of Pakistan has for about 30 years issued permits to kill bustards to Persian Gulf oil state royalty. The Gulf royals traditionally hunt bustards with falcons. Pakistan became their favored hunting destination after bustards became scarce closer to home. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Tajakistan now have captive breeding programs for bustards, hoping to restore wild populations, but across Asia the total bustard population, counting all species and subspecies, is believed to be declining by as much as 30% per year.
“Stories about the high-rolling Arab falconers are legendary in Pakistan,” wrote Jon Boone, Karachi correspondent for The Guardian. “Tons of equipment are flown in by private transport planes, including the falcons used to hunt the rare quarry. Luxuriously appointed camps are set up for the sheikhs and their guests, who often stay for weeks. Local communities value the money spent by their annual visitors, who have paid for improvements to roads and airstrips, as well as paying for the means to build mosques and schools.”
Thirty-three royals from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait were each authorized to kill up to 100 Houbara bustards over 10 days in January 2014. Prince Fahd and staff, however, killed an average of exactly 100 bustards per day for 21 days.
According to the Jaffar Baloch report, Fahd killed 1,026 Houbara bustards in nine days in the Gut game sanctuary, and 582 in six days in the Koh-i-Sultan state forest.
Summarized Baloch, “The total bustards hunted by Prince Fahd bin Abdul Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud are 1,977, and total bustards hunted by local representatives and other labourers are 123, bringing the grand total to 2,100.”
Allowing Gulf royalty to kill bustards has long been controversial in Pakistan.
“These gentle creatures are facing extinction, and are protected under Pakistani and international law,” wrote Syed Rizvi of Engineers & Scientists for Animal Rights in 2009. “It is a shame that the Pakistani government is allowing foreign VIPs and kings to carry out an illegal act for which a Pakistani citizen could go to prison. At one time these birds migrated through the Gulf nations,” Rizvi recalled, “but years of shooting sprees eventually extirpated them from that flight path. Kings and sheiks who claim to be protectors of Islamic values by enforcing Sharia laws are hunting contrary to the teaching of the holy prophet Muhammad, who said ‘One who kills even a sparrow or anything smaller without a justifiable reason, will be answerable to Allah.’”
“Pakistan is witnessing a mounting backlash against Arab sheikhs who spend part of their winters hunting a rare bird that conservationists warn is at risk of extinction,” acknowledged Boone of The Guardian, on February 4, 2014––the same day the Baloch report was issued, but Boone did not reference it.
“If it’s illegal for Pakistanis to kill these birds, why should the sheikhs be allowed to do it?” asked Karachi activist Naeem Sadiq.
Sadiq on January 31, 2014 won a temporary injunction from the Lahore high court against bustard hunting in Punjab province, but after most of the killing was over. Sadiq has also campaigned against prolifigate partridge hunting by Pakistani public officials.
“We believe the constitution gives the right to give licences to the provinces,” Sindh provincial government minister Sikandar Ali Mandhro told Boone. “If we succeed [in establishing licensing authority] we will immediately introduce a five- or 10-year ban [on bustard hunting] because the bird numbers have become so low.”