As winter arrives, internationally protected Houbara Bustard fly towards Pakistan and its adjacent countries to escape sub-zero temperature in Siberia and other central Asian countries. Simultaneously, Arab Sheiks belonging to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate (UAE) and Qatar throng to Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan province for hunting rare bird Houbara Bustard.
Being the largest province of Pakistan area-wise, Balochistan is the main terrain where several migratory birds, including that of Houbara Bustard stay for as many as four to five months. According to estimates around 30,000 to 40,000 Houbara Bustard migrate towards Pakistan and its neighboring countries every year.
According to officials of Balochistan Wildlife, Houbara Bustard with the advent of winter start reaching various parts of Balochistan, including Chagai, Nushki, Kharan, Lasbela, Zhob and Washuk districts of the province and stay by March. These months are the breeding season for migratory birds and they are most susceptible to local and Arab poachers.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorised the Houbara Bustard as a “vulnerable” species at high risk of extinction. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had banned the hunting of the endangered species. However, in 2016 the same apex court had overturned the ban.
Last year the federal government had also issued permits to Arab dignitaries and the fee of a single permit cost was to $0.1 million for ten days. The provincial forest and wildlife department for protection of illegal hunting has appointed game watchers to keep a check and prevent over-hunting however, they mostly remain ineffective to stop powerful dignitaries.
“Previously with start of winter season we could see various migrating birds such as Houbara Bustard, Sandgrouse and ducks coming from Afghanistan side, however, now with the passing of every year the number of migratory birds especially Houbara Bustard is shrinking owing to over-hunting,” says Mir Zahir Khan, a hunter and resident of District Nushki.
Talking to Balochi Zind, Mir Zahir Khan said in past the number of Houbara Bustard was as much high as we could hunt this bird at short distance of our village but now one has to travel for 60 to 70 km to find Houbara Bustard which has now become almost extinct in Nushki desert. “Actually nowadays the number of local hunters have increased manifold every second person in remote districts is a hunter. Hunting has become very easy nowadays it just needs a shotgun and motorbike but in old days very few people could have short guns and they used to hunt for the sake of food but nowadays the birds are being slaughtered that caused their fast diminution,” he added.
Mir Zahir Khan says Houbara Bustard which is considered the figurative bird of Balochistan’s desert has gone from the hands of native hunters and now they could only be hunted by Arab dignitaries.
In 2014 An Arab dignitary had poached over 2,100 Houbara bustards in just 21-day hunting safari in Chagai district of Balochistan when this fact unveiled a serious concern loomed in the province about heartless hunting of internationally protected bird.
Talking to Balochi Zind, Chief conservator of forests and wildlife Balochistan Sharifuddin says, every year various kind of birds migrate from Siberia and other Central Asian countries, including that of Houbara Bustard, however, owing to draught during past years the number of this rare bird has declined in Balochistan province. “Forest and wildlife department is paying attention for protection of all rare birds and the Wildlife Protection Act 2014 is being fully implemented that protects illegal hunting in the province while forest and wildlife department has appointed officials at district level to discourage illegal hunting and protect rare species,” he added.
Sharifuddin said that under the Act now it is upto the province to issue hunting permits. He said hunting areas of the province were allotted to various Arab royals upon which local hunters were kept limited that help reduce hunting.
He rejected the notion that the number of Houbara Bustard is reducing due to hunting permit issued to Arab signatories and said, “The Arabs are given permit in return they pay for hunting which is a huge source of revenue for the province as well as for the preservation of wildlife. There is a proper check upon over- hunting of Houbara Bustard and other trophy hunting animals, thus no one is allowed to hunt more than permits they have issued,” he said.
Sharifuddin said that last year 19 permits were issued but only five dignitaries came for hunting, adding that Balochistan has vast potential in attracting trophy hunting that could generate revenue for the province. “People now getting awareness about wildlife and there are many local organizations which are playing a role for protection of wildlife besides there are many zoological parks in the province which were also playing a role in preserving endangered birds and animals.
To ensure protection of endangered and game animals, the Balochistan Assembly had approved the Balochistan Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act of 2014. With the passing of this legislation, the Wild Life Act of 1974 was repealed.
The purpose of legislation was to curtail illegal hunting. It fixed a minimum fine of Rs10,000 and a maximum fine of Rs20,000 with three to six weeks of imprisonment for illegally hunting a single ibex. The hunting value of ibexes was also fixed by the forest and wildlife department.
Abdul Rasheed Badini, working as supervisor with Arab Sheiks when sheiks visit Balochistan for hunting says Arabs dignitaries want to work for welfare of people of the area which is allotted to them, however, the area notables and tribal elders try to manipulate funds resultantly, funds are used personally rather than for collective benefit of masses.
“A large area of Nushki district is allotted to Arab dignitaries but no any welfare work on the part of Arab Sheiks could be seen in the district because Nushki lacks true representatives and the whole welfare works and construction are executed in Chagai district.
When asked if there is proper check and balance on Arabs regarding over-hunting, he said sometime they whole day hunting teams find a single bird and sometime they become lucky to find more birds. “To some extend it is difficult to maintain bird counts during hunting by officials,” he added.
Badini says Houbara Bustard located in Balochistan are more attractive to Arab dignitaries because of vast and spotless desert as compared to other parts of the country.
Dr Irfan Ahmed Baig, environmental expert talking to Balochi Zind says protection of forests and wildlife is inevitable for the protection of ecosystem of any region. “If a single component of ecosystem remained missing the whole ecosystem would be destructed, therefore it is essential that the excessive hunting of endangered birds and animals should be stopped forthwith to protect the ecosystem of region,” he said.
Mr. Baig said Balochistan is lucky enough that it has various ecological zones located in Chagai, Chiltan, Ziarat and Zhob where juniper and pine forests are located. He said that there are different insects and plants which are eaten by birds and animals, and through this the ecosystem remains intact but if the birds and animals are over- hunted the insects would increase and the plants would vanish ultimately rangelands would change into deserts. “Government and other authorities concerned must take steps for protection of forests and wildlife to protect the ecosystem, as far as illegal hunting of Houbara Bustard is concerned, tangible steps are needed for protection of this rare bird,” he asserted.