By Haroon Janjua –
Will they (Arab Royals) continue hunting and dinning in the Pakistani deserts till the endangered species meet their extinction?
“Every time we lose a species we break a life chain which has evolved over 3.5 billion years.” – Jeffrey McNeely
When you consider the actual scene of hunting, and picture the hunter with possibly the most modern weapon, firing lethal ammunition, it’s a pitiful and inequitable mind that would not for a moment imagine in abhorrence and revulsion the contest between armed death and a rather defenseless life, that of the hunted.
There is a gross disparity in our appreciation of the human life, in comparison to most other life forms, which we have traditionally and often views as worthy of ‘game’, of hunting and taking down with the lethal weapons at our disposal.
The mindset needs to be called into question. The world has been progressing towards universalization of certain ideals and principles, which seek to ensure a certain quality of life and rights to not only the humans but also to the living creatures that inhabit this wider earth (and) including the ones who dwell in the wild.
It must concern everyone that certain Arab royals are able to get the permits and even state patronage to a great extent, for the annual spectacle of killing an enormous number of houbara bustard in Pakistan, a bloody sport that has been gaining popularity and patronage for several decades now.
Houbara bustard is a klutzy, Turkey-sized bird, with lankly legs and a long neck, and is often associated with absurd and obscure mating ritual. There is not much remarkable about this species with the exception of one thing: it is the object of obsession for Arab falconers, who have chased this feathered creature for many years and in such large numbers that it is almost on the verge of extinction in the Persian Gulf.
As the houbara migrated from its breeding grounds in Siberia, newly enriched Persian Gulf royalty flocked to the deserts and fields of Pakistan, where they were welcomed with open arms by the country’s leaders. For the Pakistanis, the hunt has become an opportunity to earn money and engage in a form of soft diplomacy.
What’s more glaring and shocking is that in the course of recent years, it has turned into a repetitive annual fare, in a bizarre geopolitical show, emphasizing affluent Arab sheikhs, the CIA, and Osama bin Laden.
J. Dana Stuster, highlighted the close association of Arabs hunting around the porous Pak-Afghan Durand-Line, when a singular Arab contingent managed to kill off 2100 houbaras in a matter of just three weeks, 20 times the quota granted to it by the gracious state of Pakistan that hosts them. In his article ‘Meet the Houbara Bustard: the Rare, Oversized, War-on-Terror Chicken’ in Foreign Policy, it was for the first time, that there was a close association of this blood sport established with the ongoing war on terror.
For the Arabs, this serves multiple objectives bizarrely enough. The Arabs consider the bitter and false-smelling meat of the houbara bustard to be full of aphrodisiacs, secondly to maintain the Sunni hegemony here, and in addition to that the Sheikhs find time for supporting their Jihadist chicken in the very region, Blissful indeed!
Steve Coll narrates in his book Ghost Wars, that in February 1999, CIA was able to zero in on the location of Osama bin Laden to a houbara hunting camp in southern Afghanistan. There was an Emirati royal who had set up his houbara hunting camp in the area. The agency intended to launch cruise missiles at the camp to kill the terror leader, however, according to Coll, the presence of this important Arab royal prevented them from taking out Bin Laden, given the probability of the valued royal likely dying in the attack as well.
The fact that Bin Laden`s escape in 1999 from houbara hunting camp was made possible due to U.S. concern for the Arab Royal accompanying Laden only means that U.S.’s counter terrorism policy has necessarily been ambivalent and flirtatious on either side of the terrain.
It’s not only the houbara-falcon alone that Saudi’s have been keen on but they have often appeared to be on the good sides of the likes of Pak-Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaida. In relevance of USA’s preference for the Saudis this does imply that U.S. counter terrorism policy is essentially selective and limited to a great extent by who they are friends with.
And the Americans have also indirectly benefitted from the Saudi generosity. In the 90’s, Saudis developed airstrips in southern Afghanistan, to facilitate shipment of houbara hunting infrastructure, SUV’s, Tents, Hunting Equipment etc, sometimes actually using the massive C130 transport carrier for the job. After 2001, when the Americans invaded Afghanistan, they used the same airstrips to build the Shamsi airbase around them.
Nearly every bird species in the deserts of Gulf has been eliminated by excessive hunting by Arab royals. And now, the petro-dollar rich Arab royals have arrived in Pakistan, with the host state’s patronage, for hunting the endangered species of houbara bustard.
These birds transitionally migrate to Afghanistan and Pakistan in winter season. The Arab Sheikhs spend huge fortunes, by local standards, for hunting and killing these birds for fun. They visit these areas every year and live in makeshift camp. This massive hunting has severely reduced the population of the houbara. The International Union for the Conservation of Wildlife must take action to help the hapless and defenseless bird from going extinct. If this bird is officially declared a preserved species, then it outlaws their hunting. This will deter the government of Pakistan from issuing licenses to the Arabs.
The unhinged U.S. support and protection of the Saudi Monarchs has left them uncontrollable and they do whatever they like in the Gulf and in Pakistan as well. The Gulf Sheikdoms, Princes and Sheikhs of Saudi Arabia have been visiting the South Pakistan territories for not only hunting of birds but also to ‘quench their lust of sexual desires’, which has another grave set of repercussions on this country’s social & spiritual health and calls into question the morality of the religious righteous in the country, who also happen to be the strongest and the staunchest votaries of Pakistan’s subservience to the Saudi petro-dollars.
“This is a clear admission of servility to the rich Arabs. They come here, hunt with impunity, and are given police protection in spite of the fact that they are violating local laws.” says Pervez Hooddbhoy, a physics professor and long time critic of what he calls “Saudization” in Pakistan, on some Saudis continuing to be allowed to hunt a houbara bustard, in Baluchistan despite a ban on hunting permits.
The Baluchistan High Court cancelled all foreign hunting permits in response to complaints from conservationists. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has termed the houbara a vulnerable species, and India has banned the hunt. The Baluchistan court order in November cited Pakistan’s obligation to international conservation treaties. However, in a bid to overcome the court ban, the Baluchistan government has lodged an appeal in Pakistan’s Supreme Court that is likely to be heard soon.
Saudi Arabia has recently injected $1.5 billion into Mr. Sharif’s government to help prop up the ailing economy. Last year in Islamabad, Mr. Sharif laid out a lavish welcome for the other Saudi hunting permit holder: Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, now the King.
It remains to be seen whether the apex court will uphold the Baluchistan Court’s order or will succumb to pressure to let the Saudis have their way. Houbara bustard indeed is in danger of extinction. It is the duty of every nature lover and conservationist to rise to its defence and ensure its survival.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad