A camel’s nose: The demise of the Asian houbara bustard in Pakistan

If the Pakistani government decides to stem the use and abuse of its wildlife at the hands of rich Arabs, this is the perfect time to take action.

NATO supply trucks Pakistan 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
NATO supply trucks Pakistan 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
This past April, Dawn, the oldest and most widely- read English-language newspaper in Pakistan, covered a report entitled “Visit of Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud regarding hunting of houbara bustard.” The report was written by Jaffar Baloch, a divisional forest officer of the Balochistan forest in Pakistan, and it detailed the hunting activities of Prince Fahd of the House of Al Saud and his hunting party. This included the number, date and place of endangered Asian bustards killed. The staggering tally was 2,100 birds. The fact that these birds were killed for their purported aphrodisiac qualities grabbed the attention of the international media.
The moral obscenity of this act touched me deeply, as did the trophy photograph; hundreds of dead birds, their lifeless bodies laid out in geometrical rows across the soft desert sand, with their wings spread out. In a moment of ethical compulsion I began a petition at Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform. The petition’s title reads: “Donate lifetime supply of Viagra to the Saudi Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud” and it is addressed to Ian C. Read, the president of the pharmaceutical corporation and manufacturer of Viagra Pfizer.
The petition’s goal is for 2,100 signatures – the number of bustards killed. Within minutes the petition began attracting media attention and hundreds of signatures from around the world. In the comments section the majority of the responses were split evenly between animal rights advocates, conservation enthusiasts and Pakistanis angered at their government’s lack of national sovereignty. The remainder of the responses were an eclectic mix ranging in scope from a Saudi woman chiding Prince Fahd for his intemperance and calling him a disgrace to the Royal House of Al Saud, to a Pakistani woman castigating all Saudi sheiks for treating Pakistan as their playground.
Against the risk of prejudice, Arabs falconers have been hunting the bustard for millennia and according to the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF) the Koran includes a verse that appears to permit falconry as a hunting method. That being said changing socioeconomic indicators have changed the nature of falconry in the Arabian Peninsula.
Falconry is now a status symbol. Abundant oilfields led to abundant incomes which in turn led to many nouveau riche turning to falconry, the “sport of kings.”
As a result well over 50 percent of the world’s falconers are now to be found in rich Arab countries where falcons cost anywhere from $20,000 to $275,000 each; a significant investment considering the fact that most falcons are only used during their first five years of life.
The above has spelled disaster for the bustards since they are, alongside with the stone curlew and the hare, a falcon’s main prey. Once abundant in places like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, bustards have all but disappeared due to overhunting. The above-mentioned states have responded by banning hunting and engaging in conservation breeding programs such as the one operated by IFHC in Abu Dhabi.
Seeing how their indiscriminate hunting practices have all but wiped out the Arabian Bustard – a mere 100 birds exist in Yemen according to the IFHC – one would assume that the same hordes of Arab princes, sheiks and other well-to-do hunters would refrain from practicing their hobby in places where the bustard is listed as endangered in order to prevent the same calamity. Wrong assumption.
The same hunters have been traveling to countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan to hunt the Asian Houbara Bustard for a number of decades.
Both countries used to have abundant population of bustards but following decades of indiscriminate hunting and habitat loss they are now listed as vulnerable and in the case of Pakistan hunting is prohibited. In the specific case of the Balochistan province in Pakistan, the World Wide Fund-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) claims that all bustards there are listed as protected animals and as such “shall not be hunted, killed or captured” in accordance with the Balochistan Wildlife Act.
The decline of the bustard in Balochistan, Pakistan can be partially attributed to Arab falconers. Quoting Mary Anne Weaver’s New Yorker article “Hunting with the Sheikhs” J. Dana Stuster, reporting for Foreign Policy, writes that these birds were once as plentiful as “butterflies in a field.” All that changed however when the Balochistan forest became a “vacation destination for wealthy falconers” who arrived “armed with computers, infrared spotlights, radar, hundreds of servants and falcons, customized vehicles” and otherwise “mobile palaces.”
Since 1992 – the time of Weaver’s article – not much has changed. Various Pakistani newspapers have been reporting of extravagant hunting parties on a yearly basis. This occurs because although hunting is illegal in Pakistan the government makes “exceptions” for Gulf dignitaries. This year alone 33 hunting permits were issued with each permit allowing for a 100 birds.
Quite naturally this gives rise to the question: Why is Pakistan granting special permits to foreign nationals thereby making a mockery out of Pakistani conservationists? At the risk of political cynicism the catchphrase “follow the money” is apt here. Saudi Arabia loaned (some say granted) Pakistan $1.5 billion in 2014. The Express Tribune, citing an anonymous government official in Lahore, writes that the money was placed in the Pakistan Development Fund; an account created with the sole purpose of channeling money from so-called “friendly countries” such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
To wit, Saudi financier Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud (a relative of Prince Fahd) refers to the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, as “Saudi Arabia’s man in Pakistan.” Regardless of how one wishes to interpret this utterance their relationship goes back to the time when Nawaz Sharif was forced to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia following his ouster by a military coup de etat in 1999.
The above has led to the popular perception that, unlike India which does not issue any such “special permits” to anyone, Pakistan is issuing hunting permits for financial rewards public and private alike. This, the argument goes, compromises respect for Pakistani laws. Affluent Arabs perceive Pakistan as a “bought and sold” state to do with as they wish. If Prince Fahd’s action of killing an 2,000 extra bustards and hunting in protected areas is any indication, this argument is inherently correct.
This state of affairs, whereby the Pakistani government and officials are submissive to rich Gulf hunters to the point of being complicit in the violation of Pakistan’s own environmental laws, has not gone unnoticed or uncontested in Pakistan. Naeem Sadiq, in “Last bird in the sky,” writes that on January 23, 2014, the Lahore High Court – on the heels of a popular petition – “directed the federal government to restrain the permit holders” from hunting while also declaring the hunting permits issued by Pakistan’s foreign ministry unlawful. However, the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs failed to enforce the court’s judgment. They cited “administrative difficulties” which, no doubt, was a euphemism for political pressure originating from the prime minister’s office.
It was within this divided political environment that Jaffar Baloch released his report outlining Prince Fahd’s killing orgy. In all fairness to Prince Fahd, if similar reports were filled for the other 32 recipients of hunting permits the results would have been the same; hundreds if not thousands of birds above quota. Prince Fahd, it would seem to me, had the “misfortune” of getting caught and as a result has found himself the target of international anger, indignation and ridicule.
Be that as it may, the findings are hardly surprising from the perspective of realpolitik or ancestral wisdom. In terms of the later, the Pakistani government appears to have fallen prey to the “Camel’s nose” blunder. In reference to an old Arabian tale whereby if a camel is allowed to put its nose in a tent its entire body will soon follow, the moral of the story is that if someone permits small undesirable acts the same acts will soon morph into larger, hard-to-reverse actions. In the case of hunting permits the Arab camel is now inside the Pakistani tent; nose, body, ass and all.
In exchange for money – be it loans, grants or bribes – Pakistani officials (naively) assumed that they could mollify their rich benefactors by issuing hunting permits. The actions of Prince Fahd and his ilk made it clear that their assumption was wrong. Getting the Arab camel to leave the Pakistani tent will not be an easy task. Following decades of unrestricted hunting access Arab hunters have developed a sense of entitlement and will not take to their ouster very kindly. Repercussions are likely to follow.
However, inaction is not a valid policy option. If allowed to continue their hunting orgies Arab falconers will drive the bustard to extinction within the next decade. When that happens either the money will run dry, or they will seek out other forms of gratification.
That being said, not all is lost. If the Pakistani government decides to stem the use and abuse of its wildlife at the hands of rich Arabs, this is the perfect time to take action. Citing internal and external pressures they could claim that they were compelled to take action in the heels of Prince Fahd’s fiasco. No doubt there will be a political and financial backlash, but its duration and intensity will be minimal.
The writer was born in Sparta, Greece and lives in Montreal, Canada. During summers she cultivates heirloom vegetables and herbs in her garden followed by weekend hikes in the Adirondacks where trails have a way of mysteriously ending at a microbrewery pub or a vineyard. The rest of the year she work as a lecturer at Concordia’s Political Science Department. Her work has been published in English and Greek academic and popular venues alike.