COMMENT: The cost of pleasing our Arab overlords —Shahid Saeed - Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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Brotherly relations and good financial compensation to better serve wildlife conservation are pathetic excuses to allow such outrageous exploitation of our eco-system and destruction of our wildlife populations

The provincial bird of Balochistan is under attack yet again. The federal government has granted 27 licenses to various Arab monarchs, princes and sheikhs to hunt the endangered Houbara Bustard, locally known as tiloor. This not the first time since last year 28 licenses were granted to the Arab royals like previous years. Some people, not just locals, are above the law in our country and allowed to damage the fragile eco-system and hunt a bird to extinction.

The Houbara Bustard is a small shy bird that is listed as vulnerable globally and is endangered in our country. Only in the Nag Valley does a local breed of the Houbara exist and the majority population migrates from Central Asia in the winters and likes to live in semi-desert and arid areas. It was declared an endangered species in 1912 and a permanent ban on hunting the bird was imposed in 1972. After hunting the bird to extinction in their own region, the Arabs turned their sights towards our rich land and since the 70s they have mercilessly hunted the bird in our country. Although a ban already existed, another ban was imposed on hunting in 1992 — albeit with the provision of “special temporary licenses” for Arab royals. This was struck down by the Sindh High Court on August 16, 1992, but the practice continued unabated. Year after year, Arab royals are allowed to come and spend time in their virtual fiefdoms and their palatial mansions to hunt the already threatened bird. Why do they do it, besides for fun? Because they believe it has mythical aphrodisiac qualities.

The licenses issued this year allow for a 100 bag limit for hunting in Rahim Yar Khan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, D G Khan, Khushab, Jhang, Mianwali, Sargodha, Rajanpur, Sukkur, Ghotki, Nawabshah, Sanghar, Khairpur, Zhob, Ormara, Gwadar, Pasni, Panjgur, Washuk, Khuzdar, Lasbela, Nushki, Dera Bugti, Dera Murad Jamali, Chaghai and Sibi. In short, they are allowed to hunt across any area in the country where the bird exists. Over the years, conservationists have realised that their calls for a complete ban on hunting the bird will never be respected. Since then, they have constantly asked that hunting be allowed only in small regions so that the bird can breed and its population remains stable. However, year after year, the licensees violate the bag limit, time duration and regions allowed for hunting. What can a lowly wildlife department do if the Amir of Qatar, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia or the president of the UAE goes into a region that is prohibited for hunting or crosses his bag limit? In 2007, when 31 licensees were allowed a limit of 200 hunts, we can estimate safely that a minimum of 6,200 birds were killed or trapped. In this highly depressing and deplorable state of affairs, the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW) remains a silent spectator and does little to resist this outrageous behaviour. The Arab princes dole out some bags of money for the national exchequer and big gifts for state officials for paving the way for them to flout our laws and rape our wildlife. The Houbara Foundation, established in 1995 after an agreement between the UAE and wildlife organisations, has established the Houbara Research and Rehabilitation Centre in Rahim Yar Khan and another one in the Nag Valley but breeding at one place cannot match the numbers that are killed every year.

Such is the viciousness of the hunters that they bring trained falcons to kill the poor bird. Sitting in their air-conditioned SUVs, the hunters like to see a falcon attack and kill the helpless Houbara. Some years ago, 10 of the hunters were allowed to bring 470 falcons. The poor, exhausted and frightened Houbara has a defensive mechanism whereby it squirts a green slime to temporarily blind predators but it does not work against a hunter as sharp as a falcon. Locals, who are heavily monetarily compensated, capture and trap these birds for their Arab customers too in violation of all laws and add to the factors that have led to the rapid decline of the Houbara population. There have been reports (especially in Badin) that locals are given Rs 150-250 to catch a bird, and then these are smuggled to the Middle East where they are sold for exorbitant prices.

Trophy hunting of the national animal, Markhor, and Ibex have been carried out sustainably and have provided the wildlife departments with the financial resources to continue conservation efforts. The Houbara’s hunting is nowhere near sustainable. Out of the 20-25,000 birds that come to the country in the winters, a minimum of four to six thousand do not return. Unlike Pakistan, various Indian states have not allowed the Arab princes to hunt the bird in their regions. While hundreds of falcons used in hunting the Houbaras are illegally captured and smuggled to the Middle East, in 2005 the government granted 15 licenses for capturing peregrine and rarer Saker Falcons. How many more ‘licenses’ are issued that are not reported is anybody’s guess. Can we protect our fragile eco-system from the Arab overlords?

However, it is not just the Arabs but the locals too who hunt the bird in violation of laws and kill other endangered species. Various national parks and forests are constantly being cut down by the notorious timber mafia in a country with an already extremely low forest cover. Such is the state of environmental conservation in the country that in 2006, the Pakistan Air Force had demanded a massive 80,000 acres of land for weapons testing in Lasbela, out of which 23,000 was in the limits of the Hingol National Park. The status of that request is unknown but now it seems that the federal government is handing out 70,000 acres of land to various Arab sheikhs in district Lasbela. The land will be used as a hunting preserve so that your highnesses do not require even the distinctly illegal hunting licenses issued to them annually. Besides aggravating the sense of deprivation and disconnect of the province from the federation amongst the Baloch, it is inflaming their feeling of being always used for their resources without being compensated. It is utterly wrong to hand over such a massive tract of land in the name of brotherly relations. Before handing over the keys to the Hingol National Park, the rulers should sell the heartless city of Islamabad first.

Brotherly relations and good financial compensation to better serve wildlife conservation are pathetic excuses to allow such outrageous exploitation of our eco-system and destruction of our wildlife populations. The late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had set up a special Environmental Protection Council in 1995 to oversee environmental and wildlife conservation projects. It was headed by none other than then federal minister for environment and current president, Asif Ali Zardari. May I request Mr President to take a notice of the issue and rescind the licenses granted that threaten the ecology of the country?

The writer is interested in history and public policy. He can be reached at

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