Shall we gift endangered species to consolidate diplomatic relations?
In a show of courtesy towards Qatar a friendly country Pakistan has allowed its Emir to import 200 falcons from it, during the year. The licence has not been issued by the Climate Change Ministry or a Wildlife Department – rather by the Foreign Ministry.
These 200 birds will become the property of the Emir and will be used to hunt houbara bustards – migratory birds coming from as far as Siberia – at different locations including the plains and deserts of the Punjab and Balochistan as well as the coastal areas of Sindh. Both the predatory birds and birds that will be preyed upon, are migratory and have to be protected under various international conventions and protocols. Given the obligations, the Foreign Ministry’s decision to issue this permit unilaterally has raised serious concerns among the stakeholders.
The foremost is the question raised by conservationists and biodiversity experts is about the likely threat to the dwindling populations of rare species of falcons due to this decision. They fear the prospects of selling these birds for millions to the rich Shaikhs, will tempt hunters to spread in all directions and capture falcons in huge numbers. Chances high that the falcon black market, which declined, down due to a ban on their hunting will once again get a boost, as they have to be captured from the wild. Traditionally, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan have been hubs of this trade. Falcons have in the past been sold for millions at auctions.
This situation calls for a deeper look at the circumstances in which the policy decision was taken and the process adopted for this purpose. There are a few questions that need to be answered here; Will this grant of permit become a precedent for others to follow at will, and frequently? Were the experts and related ministries/departments taken on board? Does the country stand to gain a lot from this move? And, whether any safeguards have been incorporated in the licence terms to save the specific falcon breeds from being overhunted?
Uzma Khan, a conservationist working with WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF), says the organisation has serious concerns about the lack of transparency in the process. She says Pakistan has made commitments to enforce the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and take special measures to protect those that have an appeal in the international market.
Khan says there is a CITES Management Authority under the Climate Change Ministry with representation of provincial Wildlife Departments, WWF, IUCN etc but its members were not engaged though its sole mandate is to approve or disapprove such proposals. She adds that Pakistan has ratified the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animal (CMS) which binds it to protecting migratory birds visiting its areas and even their habitat so that they can return safely after their sojourn here.
A former Foreign Ministry official giving his opinion, under anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the matter, says there are different strokes for different folks. “If we can keep the Shaikhs happy with falcons and hunting and it doesn’t endanger wildlife, why not?” He adds that “in these autocratic states, our workers are in danger of losing work opportunities if we don’t offer such privileges. I understand that India too allows such hunts.”
On the issuance of permits by the Foreign Ministry, he says this might have been because requests are made to the Foreign Office through diplomatic channels by these countries. He said he had heard that after receiving such a request the Foreign Office, initiates a summary for the prime minister’s approval, after which a licence is issued based on Pakistan’s relation with the relevant country. He says Foreign Office similarly issues permits for hunting and that may be the reason to not involve the Climate Change Ministry. It is not for the first time that captured falcons will be imported from Pakistan, the UAE did this in 2018, he adds.
Reportedly, the Qatari royalty will mostly import saker and peregrine species which are fit for houbara-hunting because of their speeds peculiar size, the ability to maneuver mid-air and make sharp turns; and their persistent nature. A Saker falcon is strong and has a large wing span. Peregrine is unique for being able to attain speeds beyond 350 kilometers during dives.
The demand to replace falcons arises regularly because the predators do not remain fit for hunting after two or three seasons of such stressful activity, says Dr Muhammad Jamshed Iqbal, the conservation manager at the WWF and a bird expert. He tells TNS that Houbara hunting is a very challenging sport and there can be a prolonged fight between the predator and the prey that may cause injuries to the former before the latter is overpowered. Besides, he says, falcons used for hunting go through this stressful activity times many more than, when they live freely. This takes a toll on their overall health.
He says it is not possible for anybody to come to Pakistan with old falcons and return with new ones in their place without letting others know. Now falcons travel on passports with chips installed in them, which makes illegal replacements impossible. Iqbal says that falcon hunters in Pakistan are so adept that they can catch falcons arriving in their areas within hours of learning about their presence there.
They set traps using various birds and even use a local falcon specie as bait. When these falcons attack the bait and collide with the net, the net collapses around the bird and traps them. The bal-chatri is the most common trap used in falconry over ages. It is a trap comprising of a noose-covered cage, containing the bait. Some Arab Shaikhs also travel to the habitats of falcons to release birds no longer fit for houbara hunting.