Officially, the oil sheiks didn’t use their falcons
THARPARKAR, Pakistan––Birding enthusiasts, conservationists, and inquiring minds throughout Pakistan are wondering how endangered houbara bustards really fared this past winter, after––according to the Urdu newspaper Daily Dunya––an alleged falconing camp set up in Tharparkar, Sindh district, by Qatari prince Fahad Abdul Rahman Al Thani was removed on February 10, 2017.
Houbara bustards, small as bustards go but nonetheless among the biggest members of the grouse family, have for about 40 years been favorite targets of falconers visiting Pakistan from the oil-rich Persian Gulf states.
Backlash against high rollers
“Stories about the high-rolling Arab falconers are legendary in Pakistan,” summarized Jon Boone, Karachi correspondent for The Guardian, in February 2014. “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,” Boone wrote, “who have paid for improvements to roads and airstrips, as well as paying for the means to build mosques and schools.”
Despite that, Boone acknowledged, “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.”
Hunting bustards is considered offensive in itself by many Pakistani people. Even those Pakistani people who are not offended by hunting, when the prey is eaten, are often offended by falconing, in which the prey is typically killed just for entertainment.
Perhaps most offensive of all to Pakistanis is the perception that the nation and natural resources of Pakistan are treated as colonial possessions by falconers, who customarily enjoy privileges that are not accorded to even affluent citizens of Pakistan.
Pakistanis, for example, are not allowed to hunt bustards anywhere, by any means, period.
“They were not allowed to hunt”
Reported the Daily Dunya, “The foreign office had only requested security during [the Prince Fahad] visit to see Tharparkar’s wildlife. They were not allowed to hunt, said district wildlife officer Ashfaque Memon.
“Removal of the Fahad camp was initiated following a campaign by locals of nearby village,” the Daily Dunya continued. “The Qatari royal, accompanied by 20 people, drove to Jat Tarai Village in Deeplo Taluko and set up seven tents. Wildlife officials informed the Qatari royal that he could not hunt houbara bustards in absence of formal permission.”
Judge orders officials to explain themselves
The Fahad party either left voluntarily, or were asked to leave, on the eve of a request by Lahore High Court chief justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah for the Pakistan federal government and the Punjab wildlife department “to explain under what criteria they had removed houbara bustards from the list of protected birds,” attracting the Qatari royals to the region, the Daily Dunya said.
“The court also directed the Punjab government to explain how much hunting of houbara bustard had contributed to economic development of Jhang and Bhakkar, where hunting took place,” the Daily Dunya added.
Bikers attack sheik
Prince Fahad and companions were barred from hunting bustards about six weeks after Zafar Baloch of The Express Tribune in Karachi reported that a convoy of houbara bustard hunters led by United Arab Emirates interior minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan was attacked by five armed men on motorcycles in Guchak area of Panjgur. Two of the convoy vehicles were reportedly damaged.
The alleged assailants escaped without being identified.
Resistance to the incursions of falconers from the Persian Gulf has increased in recent years not only in Pakistan but in other parts of central Asia, China, Mongolia, and eastern Europe.
This is in part because, across Asia, the total bustard population, counting all species and subspecies, is believed to be declining by as much as 30% per year.
The issue in eastern Europe, however, centers not on bustards and other falcon prey, but on falcon captures, mostly fledglings taken from their nests to be trained to hunt on human command.
Countering the growing opposition to their activities, falconers in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab emirates have begun funding captive breeding programs for both houbara bustards and Saker falcons.
The Al Marzoum reserve in the UAE reportedly released about 2,000 captive-bred houbara bustards during the winter of 2016-2017, while hosting visits by about 600 falconers. How many of the captive-bred bustards survived the falconers’ onslaught is unknown.
UAE falconers have also funded the release of about 40 young Saker falcons in Bulgaria, reported Vesela Todorova of The National in Abu Dhabi on February 8, 2017.
“Since 2015, nearly 40 young birds have been released by Green Balkans, a federation of non-governmental Bulgarian nature conservation organizations,” wrote Todorova. “The birds were raised at the group’s facility in the town of Stara Zagora, with expert help from International Wildlife Consultants, a British company specializing in falcon breeding and research,” with “long-standing links with falconers in the UAE.”
Sheik killed 20 times the bag limit
Meanwhile back in Chagai, Balochistan province, Pakistan, a tipping point of sorts may have been reached after Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud and his retinue in January 2014 killed 2,100 houbara bustards during a three-week hunting trip, exposed in April 2014 by the Karachi online newspaper Dawn.
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. Prince Fahd and staff, however, killed an average of exactly 100 bustards per day for 21 days, 20 times the bag limit, including 1,026 houbara bustards killed in nine days in the Gut game sanctuary, and 582 houbara bustards killed in six days in the Koh-i-Sultan state forest.
Sheik came despite bustard hunting ban
Wildlife officials had already announced that there was to be no bustard hunting season in 2015, to allow the population to recover. Despite that, Emma Bryce reported in February 2015 for Audubon, “In January 2015 a prominent Saudi prince, Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, arrived in Balochistan with all the trappings of a lavish annual hunt in tow: tents, jeeps, and hunting falcons, probably of the Saker variety.”
Asks Karachi activist Naeem Sadiq, “If it’s illegal for Pakistanis to kill hobara bustards, why should the sheikhs be allowed to do it?”
Sadiq in January 2014 won a temporary injunction from the Lahore high court against houbara bustard hunting in Punjab province, but after most of the killing for that year was over. Sadiq has also campaigned against profligate partridge hunting by Pakistani public officials.
“Gentle creatures facing extinction”
“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.’”