A prized migratory bird — houbara bustard — often remains in the news on one count or the other.
Amongst major reasons, one could list its illegal hunting and poaching due to a popular but unfounded belief that the meat of houbara bustard, though tasteless, increases stamina or that it is aphrodisiac. This belief, probably, stems from the long distances that the bird covers to escape from the extremely cold winters in its natural habitat in Siberia (Russian Federation) to find refuge in the Central and South Asia for six months, and also from their large numbers that migrate to distant lands each year.
Some countries allow restricted hunting of this bird as an instrument of international diplomacy. The interest shown by royal families in some of the Gulf and Middle Eastern countries in houbara bustard hunting through falconry, as did their forefathers, and the thrill associated with the game, has attracted millions of dollars investment for setting up houbara bustard research and rehabilitation centres. Furthermore, the visit by sovereigns for falconry strengthens the relations of their countries with the host countries where they sponsor development projects and also provide jobs to the local communities, thus becoming instrumental in greasing their economies.
Other reasons for its remaining in the news could be restrictions on the illegal hunting of houbara bustard, arrests of poachers, measures for the rehabilitation and release of birds confiscated from poachers. Obviously, after each occurrence, the bird becomes a source of news.
Locally known as Tiloor, this bird is listed “vulnerable” as it had started to decline in number globally because of widespread hunting and poaching in the last decades of the 20thcentury.
To defend itself from predators, houbara bustard has a defensive mechanism whereby it squirts a green slime, which blinds the predators temporarily. But, exhausted and fatigued migratory birds become an easy prey for falcons.
Flying south from Siberia between 500,000 to one million, birds of many species migrate through Pakistan. According to conservative estimates, around 30,000 to 40,000 of this ground-dwelling bird settle in Pakistan for about six months. These birds mostly choose the desert areas as their abode where they feed on desert plants and insects.
To conserve the little shy bird, the Pakistan government has introduced a strict check on the illegal hunting and poaching of houbara bustard. Furthermore, to replenish houbara bustard stock, two research and rehabilitation centres — one each at Rahim Yar Khan (Punjab) and Nag Valley (Kharan: Balochistan) — are providing positive services for the last many years. Houbara bustard taken from poachers are brought at these conservation centres and nursed back to health before being released back to their natural wintering habitats in Pakistan. These habitats include: Cholistan and Rajanpur (Punjab), Thar (Sindh) and Nag Valley. The latter also happens to be the breeding habitat of a local breed of houbara bustard.
As an instrument of international diplomacy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) have been extending invitations to brotherly countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, who undertake welfare and development projects in our country and also provide gainful employment to a large number of expatriate Pakistanis.
Issuing of diplomatic notes and exchanging similar other documents with friendly countries falls within the purview of “external affairs” and hence within the competence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). The competence of MOFA in this matter is further reaffirmed by a notification issued by the Cabinet Division on June 29, 2011, stating that “hunting areas for foreign dignitaries is assigned to MOFA.”
However, the invitation letters for hunting through falconry bind the visiting dignitaries to abide by 16 conditions of a Code of Conduct. Its first clause states: “Only sustainable hunting of houbara bustard is allowed.” Under another clause, it is prohibited to hunt more than 100 birds over 10 days in the area, as spelt out in the diplomatic note. But, abiding by the code remains much to be desired. However, one must admit that vigilance and strict check on illegal poaching, coupled with conservation measures, has stabilised the houbara bustard’s population in Pakistan during the last 20 years. In some cases, according to authorities, a positive trend in the growth of these birds has been noticed.
Benefitting from the studies made by the Rahim Yar Khan and Nag Valley Houbara Bustard Research and Rehabilitation Centres, sincere efforts must be made to set up houbara bustard breeding centres at appropriate places in Pakistan. The step would result in swelling the number of indigenous birds. A similar venture has succeeded in Saudi Arabia where houbara bustard has been reintroduced at Al-Sayd Reserve. Located on the western edge of the Najd Plateau, the reserve covers an area of 2,200 square kilometres, making it the second largest fenced natural reserve in the world. The bird had almost become extinct in the region, but it now numbers around 1,000.
It has also been observed that vested quarters spare no effort in finding fault with the government’s efforts to cementing friendly relations with other countries or making economically advantageous ventures, like hydropower projects and Pakistan-China Economic Corridor, controversial. Recently, some quarters have taken exception to MOFA’S writing of diplomatic notes to friendly countries to pay visits to Pakistan for houbara bustard hunting through falconry though this mode or practice has been used for the last many years to further strengthen relations with the brotherly countries.
According to the Rules of Procedure, once a federal authority, including MOFA, specifically endorses a letter to the chief secretary of a province for further necessary action, it becomes a direction to the provincial government under Article 149 of the Constitution. This Article states: “…the executive authority of the Federation shall extend to the giving of such directions to a Province as may appear to the Federal Government to be necessary for that purpose.” However, one is baffled by the apathy of the official machinery in setting the record straight and pointing out that since the matter pertains to “external affairs” only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is competent to deal with it.
Falconry is a thrilling sport unlike shooting birds with guns. If it is promoted like polo or tent-pegging, and competitions for hunting non-vulnerable birds are held between registered teams (say for about a fortnight during a pre-selected month every year) and arrangements are made whereby people could watch the hunting competitions, falconry could become a good source of tourist attraction and revenue-earning. Before venturing into it, we must, however, set-up breeding centres for the species of birds selected for hunting at appropriate places so that the population of those birds could be increased substantially.
Critical of the government decision to ban houbara bustard hunting, local hunters have been airing their anguish through mass media, court cases and other channels. It looks ridiculous, they contend, that the government has imposed a strict ban on hunting by the natives, but it is inviting foreign dignitaries for houbara bustard hunting. Recently, they have threatened to block the Indus Highway if the ban on houbara bustard hunting was not lifted. Some sort of arrangement whereby local hunters could be allowed to engage in limited hunting of wild pigeons, doves, etcetera through falcons could, perhaps, address their grievances to some extent.