Houbara bustard: A goodwill bird

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Kaswar Klasra

DESPITE lifting of ban by the apex court on houbara bustard hunting earlier this year, some Pakistani officials say a systematic campaign is being run by vested interests to discourage and defame the federal government’s invitations to Arab rulers and members of their royal families to visit Pakistan for seasonal houbara hunting — a key leverage used for furthering country’s foreign policy initiatives in the Arabian Gulf.
Officials think of this “sustainable houbara bustard hunting as purely a matter of goodwill, asserting that Pakistan will keep on striving to maintain its relations with Gulf Arab countries in best mode.
“Some elements want to discourage Arab rulers and members of the royal families from visiting Pakistan and enjoying this sustainable winter hunting which is carried out under licence, and for a limited period,” said an official, adding, “Pakistan’s bond with the Arab Gulf countries and their rulers is strong and cannot be dented. Not only these Arab rulers and family members follow the concept of sustainable hunting, they also contribute handsomely to habitat communities through various welfare projects in health , education, infrastructure development, housing, clean drinking water to help uplift socio-economic conditions of the underprivileged communities.”
Extending a clear-cut Pakistan government version on the issue, the Federal Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir, had told the National Assembly the policy of issuing permits to the Arab dignitaries was reviewed every year by the federal government.
“Hunting permits are issued on receipt of request from respective embassies after approval of the prime minister. Most of these dignitaries have taken keen interest in the development of the areas allocated to them for hunting.”
Every year Pakistani government invites Arab rulers and members of their royal families to pursue their centuries- old sport of hunting the houbara with falcons. Licences are issued to the designated persons which sometimes range over two dozens or more. A number of areas are allotted to them for setting up their hunting camps. The whole thing creates a lot of goodwill for Pakistan in the Gulf Arab countries where millions of Pakistanis work, and send valuable remittances back home which is a significant source of foreign exchange reserves of the country. Pakistan’s soil is regarded as an attractive wintering ground and milieu for the migratory birds which is also an attractive destination for Arab hunters every year at the onset of winter.
Consequently, a large number of vulnerable species like the houbara bustard from atrocious freezing regions of Siberia migrate to Pakistan and other countries. The houbara is a regular winter visitor which migrates from its breeding grounds in the Central Asian states to wintering habitats in Pakistan. The famous route from Sibera to various destinations in Pakistan over Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Suleiman Rangers along the Indu river down to the delta is known as the International Migratory Bird route. This bird starts on this route in November. February is peak time and by march they start flying back home. There are a total of seven identified flyways in the world.
In January 2016, a five member bench of the Supreme Court had lifted a ban imposed on houbara bustard hunting imposed earlier by the three member bench of the same court in August 2015. The decision also quashed order of the Balochistan High Court in November 2014 which cancelled licences issued by the federal government to various Arab ruler and member of the royal families. Scattered across Balochistan, parts of Sindh province and Punjab, the houbara habitats are composed of dry arid areas where poverty stricken human communities live without basic amenities of life like education, health care, skills, portable water, communication , infrastructure and employment.
A number of areas are allotted to Arab hunters for setting up their hunting camps. During the period of allotment the said dignitaries themselves arrange to protect their hunting areas against illegal hunting and poaching for this they employ hundreds of guards and a chain of employments of cooks, scouts, drivers, tradesmen and khalasis takes place from the local communities for the duration of the hunting camps. A watch and ward system starts functioning from August until the end of March during which all species and their habitats are saved from destruction.
Houbara Foundation International Pakistan carried out the annual survey of houbara during the winter season of 2008-9. Surveys were conducted in the houbara habitats in Sindh, and in the districts of Dera Ghazi Khan, Rahim Yar Khan and Rajanpur in the Punjab province. Aim of the survey was to identify poachers and traders of houbara, and examine the condition of the habitat. The surveys revealed that poaching continues unabated and is adversely affecting the houbara populations. Poachers and traders continue this nefarious business for various purposes .i.e food, locals sale and smuggling etc. Therefore, effective measures are needed to prevent the decline.
Individuals involved in poaching and trading of houbara have been identified by the survey teams in the areas of Dera Ghazi Khan, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajanpur and in Sindh. Action against poachers and traders may be carried out in the following three phases. A) lists of poachers and traders be provided to influential persons of respective areas to motivate them not to indulge in illegal activities. Names of selected poachers and dealers may also be obtained from such influential persons for giving them employment as watchmen and local supervisors in houbara protections camps. B) Names of poachers and traders, who cannot be controlled by influential persons, may be given to Wildlife Department, Police, FIA, IB and other law enforcement agencies to warn these culprits to desist from such activities. C) Protection camps be established and special teams activated in respective areas. Poachers and traders who did not stop their illegal activities, must be monitored, identified, booked and arrested through law- enforcement agencies.