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January 18, 2017

Hunt for the Houbara


January 18, 2017

Winter, largely in the south of Pakistan, is less cold. In the past, this attracted tourists from the western part of the country. However, an ongoing terror scourge birthed by the global war on terror has robbed the area of its seasonal attraction. The moderate weather, however, still suits and attracts a large number of migratory birds from the west which are then selectively killed.

This season, from Punjab’s Bhakkar to Balochistan’s Lasbela and from Sindh’s Ghotki to Tharparkar, hunters have been reportedly seen and filmed.

These hunters are said to have been on the hunt for a rare, shy and endangered bird, the Houbara Bustard, along with other migratory birds and indigenous animals.

The desert belts as well as some barren and seasonally cropped areas are the hunting grounds for these birds in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is an exception because the provincial government there has banned hunting of endangered animals, despite requests by the federal government which has already issued special grants to overseas hunters, who come loaded with hi-tech sports vehicles and turbans and assisted by the latest electronic gadgets and hosts with elite backgrounds, irrespective of political affiliations.     

In recent times the Arab world has attracted cheap labour from this region for its hi-tech development – made possible largely through oil discoveries in the Gulf region. This has led to their prosperity and lavish pleasures.

One of these pleasures is hunting down a migratory and endangered bird, the Houbara Bustard (locally named ‘taloor’) found mostly in barren and deserted belts across the country.

This year, the news value and controversy on hunting down the Houbara remained at its peak, either on mainstream or social media.

The hunters are mostly from royal families. As they roam around from the plains to the mountains to desert beds, these hunters are treated with specially granted permissions and protocols. They use specified electronic machines and inmate birds to track down their prey.

What is this mythical bird and why are rich hunters so crazy about it? The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the particular variant of the bustard hunted in Pakistan as ‘threatened’ – a classification below ‘endangered’ and ‘critically endangered’. It is one of those endangered species which flies every year from the Siberian region when mercury there zeroes down, often crossing -50 degrees Celsius.

While the Russians can only dream about the ‘warm waters’ of this region, their birds don’t need any strategic approval – so they fly every year, touch our waters and enjoy the warmth of the weather.

As birds don’t need any visa or comply with any border controls, the sky is the limit for them. However, the hunters shoot them down just to please their hunting passion.

The hunt of this bird has become a new, key instrument of our national foreign policy that deals with the Gulf region and its wealthier royals and their rich friends.

In October 2015, there were reports that the federal government had attempted to overturn an earlier Supreme Court edict that banned any governments, provincial or federal, from issuing special hunting permits.

Last month, in Punjab’s Bhakkar district, there were some protests against the Arab hunters. The demonstrators shouted slogans against the government and the hunters.

The hunters were apparently destroying the only crop – chickpea – that could be produced in the sandy soil of that particular area and took an entire season to harvest.

In recent years, there have been protests across the country against these hunters for the damage they inflict on the crop. However, local authorities did not consider the destruction as grave as the demonstrators tried to show it was. Rather, the authorities blamed local farmers for being accustomed to getting compensation from royal hunters by holding demonstrations against them.

Arab hunters have also initiated
various ‘development projects’ in the hunting areas but these are too symbolic and cosmetic to realistically tackle
the area’s chronic issues and abject poverty.

Moreover, this is not a matter of endangering or conserving any bird. It is more a matter of protecting your national identity and integrity. It is interesting to see how foreign nationals are granted hunting permissions and how our entire ruling elite crumbles down at the cost of their vested interests.

This needs drastic revaluation and reassessment at the national level. Will any of our ruling elites ever be allowed in any Gulf country for a similar hunting spree?

The writer is an Islamabad-based anthropologist and analyst.

Email: [email protected]