As winter sets in, Pakistani media will be again abuzz with news of Houbara bustard hunting licenses being granted to Arab dignitaries. These echo chambers report of the bird’s hunting permits for Balochistan only while the sport goes in Sindh and southern Punjab as well.
While it’s a portion of one side of the story, Balochistan has countless other issues of which its nationalists won’t even list bird hunting, legal or illegal, as one. While fanning the controversy for years, there is little well-rounded, in-depth reporting on the issue. The pheasant, though hunted legally, is endeared by many a lobby and pressure group while the bloc turns a blind eye to wildlife poaching and smuggling mafias. Evidently, the environment reporting sounds no different than other beats.
Globally, illicit trade of wildlife soars in the range of $35 billion to $40 billion. Since there can’t be a near accurate assessment of its volume, every figure floating in reports is a guesstimate. Poachers and smugglers are the worst enemies of the wildlife. Rarely have communities been held responsible for elimination of a specie, albeit population surge and migration.
Ironically, there’s little uproar against thriving black market of wildlife for Pakistani falcon, Houbara Bustard, pangolin and freshwater turtles which fetch high price in the Asian black market. From pet-lovers to traditional medicine makers all buy animals with no regard for their actions’ consequences for the ecosystem.
Besides community level engagement by the forest and environmental departments, the illicit trade of wildlife can’t be stemmed without attaching it high priority and creating a smooth and effective interagency mechanism involving district administration, rangers, wildlife department, customs, airport security force, immigration, coast guards and highway police. From reviving traditional community-based checks to district and regional level law enforcement create the prerequisite framework against the heinous and greedy business.
Last year, Pakistan approached the issue of saving Houbara bustard (MacQueen bustard to be specific) in a bizarrely insensitive manner. While larger and ever-prevailing threats to its existence were left unaddressed, a legal ban on issuance of hunting license (read falconry) was enforced only to be trashed by the Supreme Court. For a couple of months, Islamabad’s hunting ban against the bird made headlines for banning regulated legal hunting of Houbara bustard than acting swiftly against the poachers and smugglers. During previous hearings, the stunning pheasant was portrayed nearing extinction.
Interestingly, Balochistan Act, 2014, places the fowl in both categories, protected and game. “Hunting of protected animals is prohibited whereas license is required to hunt game animals,” the SC verdict said. The Supreme Court disagreed; relying on the criteria laid down by the IUCN, which lists it in the category of ‘vulnerable’, a notch above ‘endangered.’
Looking at the matter apolitically, more existential threat to Houbara is excessive grazing of its habitat, particularly a shrub called Karri. Then follows the sinister challenge from poachers and traders who exploit vastness of three southern Punjab districts, upper Sindh and large parts of Balochistan. Some have opted to establish private game reserves in violation of laws.
An extensive survey of the partridge’s habitat and population, carried out in 2008 by Houbara Bustard International Foundation, found that instead of licensed hunting, poaching and trading for food, local sale and smuggling abroad took the toll on the population.Seasonal or migratory grazing of livestock was found to be another major threat to the habitat of the houbara in Cholistan desert. Another impediment has been use of Karri plant in brick kiln factories. Over the years, it has been a daunting task for conservationists to convince and facilitate brick kiln owners to use other fuels in their plants (vernacularly called bhata). It’s estimated that some 30,000 to 40,000 houbara bustards migrate to Pakistan every year for six months.
Conservation efforts have continued but far from the media glare. Every year, a few hundred birds bred in the UAE are released into the Pakistani habitat through the HoubaraFoundation International. Last year, 600 pheasants bred in captivity were set free by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation based in Abu Dhabi. More than 200,000 houbara bustards had been bred under the organisation’s breeding programme. Now, the fund aims to breed 50,000 cartridges a year to replenish the ecosystem.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan established a Houbara Research and Rehabilitation Centre where pheasants taken from poachers are brought and nursed back to health before being set free. Besides, another rehabilitation center in Nag Valley in Balochistan has also helped stabilise the bird’s population. The low-key but intensive effort was initiated and sustained due to licensed seasonal falconry. In the age of social media and misinformation, a call to the World Wildlife Fund about Houbara’s successful conservation seems too much to ask for.
The challenge of habitat conservation and to curb poaching and hunting remains more daunting. Over six years ago, the authorities identified poachers and traders in the bird’s prime habitat. While several could be motivated to adopt alternative means of livelihood while some of whom have been employed in Houbara protection camps for watch-and-ward duties, others are tracked and handed over to the law enforcing authorities. While the campaign leaves much to be desired, the community has come along to a great deal. Livestock has been moved away from priority areas of the habitat. In most cases, local shifting of livestock has taken place with the consent of elders and other influentials.
Tagging of some selected birds with satellite transmitters brings valuable information for scientists to monitor Houbara bustard after their release into the wild. They track and record their movement, habitat preferences and ability to breed. The data generated twice a week is communicated to the Houbara Foundation International Pakistan for field validation and action.
Disregarding conservation process and criminal poaching of the fowl, Pakistani echo chambers have been blasting with opposition to falconry, a centuries’ old hobby, sport or tradition. Since the creation of Pakistan, Arab or local enthusiasts for falconry have been seeking license that limits the catch up to 100 birds in 10-day preying spell and prohibits use of guns or any other firearms.Houbara’s meat is widely assumed to be an aphrodisiac.
Sometimes the government departments fail to ensure strict observance of code of conduct. The same was reported last year by a wildlife officer who accused a Gulf prince of killing 2,100 Houbara bustards over 21 days.Where was the provincial government when the individual did not end his preying spell after the 10th day. Though legislation takes precedence in Pakistan over enforcement, the blame in the case of pheasant hunting was never placed where due. The government surely needs improvement in monitoring after awarding licenses. The 16 conditions entitled Code of Conduct ought not be limited to paper alone.
The communities in the areas of licensed seasonal hunting oppose ban on the practice for the tourists bring valuable commercial activity. A study on falconry’s economic benefits for communities might have helped understand this but there’s none. Relying on interviews with villagers, one can confidently see falconry a win-win for all involved including the mid-sized fowl. The wildlife protection department need better surveillance equipment and training besides nurseries for in-house breeding of game animals, including Houbara bustard. Well-regulated falconry not only helps wildlife and local communities but also a centuries’ old tradition of Pakistani and Gulf Arab tribes.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2016.
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