Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

ENVIRONMENT-PAKISTAN: Winter Revives Row over Houbara Hunting

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 19 2003 (IPS) - Come winter and the houbara bustard issue resurfaces in Pakistan like the endangered and shy desert bird itself. If it is not the row over its sustainable hunting, then it is people looking the other way while falcons, traditionally used to hunt the birds, are smuggled out.

There is also diplomacy and brotherly relations with the Arabs, who for centuries have used falcons to hunt houbaras and also carry this out in the country, that activists say makes conservation an impossible task.

This year, the houbara hunting season started with a row in Punjab’s Dera Ghazi Khan district. According to media reports, villagers have dismantled the camps of the Houbara Foundation, created for the protection and sustainable hunting of the bird, as a reaction to attempts to stop the locals from hunting and netting the houbara and the falcons.

There is a ban on the hunting of this protected bird – but only for the local hunters. Foreign dignitaries, mostly Arabs, are allowed the hunt in violation of the country’s own rules to protect the endangered bird.

"These people (hunters) can afford to have fun although it’s against the norm of conservation. In India when they tried hunting for houbara, the provincial states denied them the permission,” Tahir Qureshi, head of the Coastal and Marine unit of World Conservation Union (IUCN) Pakistan, says sardonically.

Qureshi, once deputy conservator with the wildlife and forestry department here in Singh province, remarks sadly: "Pakistan has a unique biodiversity but it’s gone to the dogs, we’ve made a business out of it, instead of conserving it for posterity."

"Wildlife should not be used as a diplomatic tool to please some friendly states,” adds Tanvir Arif, chief executive officer of the Society for Conservation and the Protection of the Environment. Tens of thousands of houbaras come to Pakistan each year because Pakistani rangelands constitute the largest chunk of their winter feeding grounds. They come from the Urumqi and Kashgar areas of Xinjiang in China, and the Kyzl Kum, Tau Kum and Kara Kum desert areas of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and some areas of Turkmenistan.

Unconfirmed estimates put the houbara population in Asia at about 100,000, with numbers falling fast.

According to the wildlife acts in the Pakistani provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, the hunting of houbara bustards is prohibited.

But each season, the ban is temporarily lifted and permits are issued to affluent Arab sheikhs. But Hussain Bahadur Baghat, conservator with government’s Sindh Wildlife Department, corrects this: "It’s only the head of the state" who richly reimburse the government for the pleasure of hunting the rare bird. This year, too, the hunting areas have been allocated.

"The issuing of hunting licences is done purely by the federal government," says Baghat, absolving himself of all blame. "Clearly demarcated hunting areas are allocated and so are the hunting bags and the duration of the hunt. Each dignitary is allowed approximately 200 birds."

But Tanvir Arif argues, "Can you imagine a wildlife official, even if he is of top most rank, preventing an Arab guest – head of the state or even, say, a defence minister, crossing the bag limit?"

According to Arif, areas marked for hunting unfortunately include wildlife-protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. ”The permit may say that protected areas are excluded, but hunters easily do violate these restrictions." This year however, Baghat promises: "We are going to keep a log, unlike previous years."

The government’s justification in permitting foreigners to hunt is that these funds can be invested in welfare and development projects. It invites rulers and members of ruling families of the Arab states for their traditional sport of falconry, houbara hunting being a traditional game.

In return, these dignitaries carry out welfare programmes for the habitat communities that live under harsh conditions in the wildernesses. During the hunting season, they employ local drivers, cooks and guides who earn enough to sustain their families the year round.

The director of the Houbara Foundation, retired Brig Mukhtar Ahmed, says that some 20,000 to 25,000 houbaras enter Pakistan every year. ”Where these birds interact with the local ecosystems, they also have to face traditional falconers and illegal hunters and trappers. When these birds begin their return migration in March, it is believed that 4,000 to 6,000 birds fail to go back to their breeding areas, having been poached and smuggled abroad."

But the greatest damage, Ahmed explains, is done by "falconers invited privately from the oil-rich gulf states, by local sardars, and who hunt illegally without licence. They also fail to share their dividends with the poverty-stricken habitat communities."

It all started in the sixties during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government, when Arab dignitaries were invited to come for the game. In the 1970s and 80s, the guests played havoc with the bird and ecosystem of the range lands in Pakistan with excessive hunting, by bringing heavy four-wheelers to the deserts along with other modern game accessories. Their frequent visits not only proved fatal to houbara, but caused destruction to other wild animals and disturbed their natural biological cycles. In the 80s, scientists and wildlife organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), raised their voice against the unbridled hunting of houbaras in Pakistan. In the early 90s, WWF Pakistan initiated an extensive media campaign against the falconers.

In 1994, a team of conservationists from the United Arab Emirates arrived in Pakistan to negotiate with wildlife organisations. In 1995, the Houbara Foundation International was formed. Within a few years, it became one of the most resourceful non-government groups in Pakistan and runs two research centres for the rehabilitation and breeding of the bird. Asked why his foundation and the WWF did not protest the hunt of the bird, Ahmed says: "The Houbara Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund had no authority except to put moral pressure on the government to take care of the treaties it signed for the conservation of nature."

He adds that the Houbara Foundation International helps governments monitor habitats and carry out population estimates of the houbaras every year. ”The foundation advocates sustainable hunting, benefit to the habitat communities and transparency in hunting-related activities. Sustainable hunting precludes the ruthless destruction of whole populations of houbaras and ensures that future human generations also get to see the houbaras,” Ahmed explains.

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