The Asian Houbara Bustard is a controversial bird in Pakistan – declared endangered by numerous international wildlife conservation organizations but annually hunted by visiting Gulf royalty in different parts of the country.
Following a hunting trip where a disproportionate number of birds were shot down, a petition filed in the Supreme Court of Pakistan resulted in a ban on issuance of hunting permits for the bird in August 2015. The Apex Court lifted the ban on review petitions filed by the federal and three provincial governments in January 2016.
In its arguments submitted before the court, the federal government had argued that issuing permits to Gulf royalty was an integral part of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
Where is the houbara bustard found?
The range of houbara bustards extends from east of the Nile in Egypt to China and Mongolia. It’s found in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, U.A.E., Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Kazakhstan alone hosts around 50 percent of the global population.
The bird is migratory and the northern population goes south during winter months. Those from western Kazakhstan migrate to the regions around Iraq-Iran border and those from central and eastern Kazakhstan to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Balochistan and Sindh provinces). Birds that reach the Cholistan desert in Punjab province are the Chinese bustard.
The birds start arriving in the second half of September through the end of the year. The peak of the migrations is from mid-October to mid-November.
Endangered or not?
The bird is listed as vulnerable and endangered by many animal conservation organizations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
A report published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan in 2016 states that the global population of the bird was estimated to be between 78,960 and 97,000 in 2014. It notes that the bird’s population has been declining at a 30-50 percent rate over a 20 year window owing to unsustainable levels of hunting and poaching.
Should controlled hunting be permitted?
Though it’s an endangered species, controlled hunting is not considered a significant threat to the bustard’s survival.
Dr Waseem Ahmad Khan, Head of the Wildlife and Ecology Department at the University of Veterinary & Animal Sciences (UVAS), Lahore, tells TR Pakistan that the government’s policy of issuing 10-day hunting permits to foreign delegations during winter months was not posing any serious threat to the bird’s population. Based on his years of research on the bird in its sanctuaries in Pakistan, Khan believes that the “outcry in the media was uncalled for as the issue had been blown out of proportion”.
Hunting in Pakistan
Though wildlife conservation is a provincial subject in Pakistan, government in three of the four provinces of the country are in unison in continuing controlled hunting of the bird. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had levied a complete ban on it as late as December 2016.
Naeem Bhatti, a deputy director at the Punjab Wildlife Department, says that two surveys are conducted to monitor the population of the houbara bustard every year. “We do a survey following the birds’ arrival in early December and the other just before its expected out-migration in March,” he says. The exercise is repeated every year to monitor the number of birds arriving and leaving the province, he adds.
Bhatti says that the federal government is alerted through the Ministry of Climate Change if the population in any area is found to be below normal level. “Those areas are then not allocated for hunting by foreign dignitaries,” he says.
A senior official at the Houbara Bustard Foundation approximates the number of birds migrating into the country is between 25,000 and 30,000.
“If the government allows the Arabs to hunt even 3,000 birds a year, it will in no way cause their extinction,” he says. He says the Gulf delegations make hunting trips to some of the remotest areas of the country including the Cholistan desert and mountainous regions of Balochistan. “They invest in development of infrastructure and provision of basic services in these places, making it a mutually beneficial relationship,” he adds.