November Issue 2015
The Sacrificial Lambs
The houbara bustard, or chlamydotis macqueenii, locally known as ‘taloor’, is listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, a classification that does not seem to hold any truck with the Foreign Office (FO).
The environmental fraternity had hardly completed celebrating a rare success after the Supreme Court banned the hunting of this migratory bird that it was confronted with a review petition filed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding the reversal of this decision. Granted that the government is well within its rights to contest the decision, but everyone was dumbstruck by the reason it gave for opposing the ban. It maintained that permission to allow Arab potentates to come and hunt this bird in Pakistan was a ‘pillar of foreign policy.’
So is our foreign policy now hostage to the life and death of this bird that escapes the extreme cold of Central Asia and comes to countries like Iran, Pakistan, India etc. in the winter? The reasons given to allow the hunting of the houbara bustard are the ‘special relationship’ between Pakistan and the Arab monarchies, the large number of Pakistani expatriates working in these countries, and, of course, the huge sums spent by the visiting hunters on the ‘development of the areas’ where they hunt. The fact that our neighbouring countries also have a similar relationship with the Gulf states but have put a complete ban on hunting the houbara bustard without affecting their relationship did not figure in the deliberations.
As Vaqar Zakaria of Hagler Bailly says, “I find it quite intriguing that the FO has suddenly become a champion of sustainable species management. I recall years back in the National Council for Conservation of Wildlife (NCCW) meetings, when the representative of the FO participated, environmental concerns was never shared or stated by the FO; it was very simply, ‘We have to do it because we have no choice. Arab and Gulf states are important for the country’ kind of an approach. “
What is even more intriguing is the way that the petition has been presented before the Supreme Court, quoting IUCN’s Policy on the Sustainable Use of Wild, Living Resources as a justification to continue the hunting of this species in Pakistan, when it was this very policy that was presented before the Balochistan High Court on December 5, 2012 as well as the Lahore High Court on June 4, 2014, that led to the ban by these courts in the first place.
The petition puts a spin on the policy by quoting the portions that support any uses of wild living resources which are equitable and ecologically sustainable. It had opposed houbara hunting because it deemed the present manner of hunting to be unsustainable. IUCN had voiced the apprehension that if hunting pressure was not reduced, the species could soon be moved to a higher threat category on the IUCN Red List.
Another major environmental organisation, WWF-Pakistan has said that it recognises that illegal hunting and trapping of the houbara bustard are detrimental to the population of the species. The organisation believes that sustainable hunting programmes can be beneficial for the conservation of the species and in providing economic benefits and employment for communities and we have numerous such examples in Pakistan.
The entire argument hinges on the word ‘sustainable,’ especially as Pakistan has many successful models of sustainable hunting programmes via trophy hunting in community stewardship, which, in the words of many conservationists, is truly a win-win model that could and should be adopted as far as houbara hunting is concerned.
Critics point out that the present hullaballoo about houbara hunting has as much to do with the growing resentment towards Arab influence due to linkages with extremism in the country as it does with concerns for conservation. But conservationists warn that the ‘bans’ can prove to be counterproductive in many ways. Not only will the economic benefit of a large number of people take a hit if the hunting parties cease to visit, but the poachers will have a field day too.
There is also a need to look at some other species of Pakistan that are actually threatened with extinction, like the black partridge, geese, cranes and the Para deer. Pakistan also is home to other threatened species like the snow leopard, the Indus river ‘blind’ dolphin, the marine turtles and vultures.
Conservationists feel that the overemphasis on the houbara issue is diverting attention from the need to work for the protection of these species.
It is a fact that Pakistan, as a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), cannot allow any birds hunted in Pakistan, living or dead, to be taken out of the country without the necessary CITES permits. Herein starts the fight over jurisdiction. After devolution, wildlife has become a provincial subject, yet the FO has been issuing permits, bypassing these protocols in the process. This makes monitoring of the birds hunted beyond the permitted limit difficult as the wildlife department does not have ownership of the activity.
Given that the houbara bustard has been placed in Appendix 1 of the CITES, the words of Vaqar Zakaria resonate even more when he says, “So far I have not seen any attention being paid to the sustainability aspect of the hunts conducted. I had earlier raised the concern that there is extensive damage to the habitat for a range of other species, including reptiles, particularly in western Balochistan where the vehicles of the dignitaries go on a rampage, too preoccupied to worry about the little lizards that may be running for their lives. Where are the species counts, before and after the hunts? Is there evidence that there is anything remotely sustainable in what has been going on? I have not seen any transparency in the social investments made by the dignitaries that come to hunt — how much is invested, who benefits or how well-maintained are the facilities?”
Herein lies the crux of the matter. Falconry may be a prestigious tradition associated with the houbara hunting, and in the cash-strapped economy of the areas in which these hunts occur, there are many who benefit financially. Some infrastructure development has also taken place by way of metalled roads, airport and hospitals. However, for the communities living deep within the deserts and plains where these hunts take place, the benefits have not trickled down. For locals not employed directly by the visiting Arabs, their own land becomes a ‘no-go’ area.
Also, for the programme to proceed in a sustainable manner, a number of steps need to be taken. A census of the houbara population would need to be taken, followed by establishing sanctuaries and breeding grounds. Only then can we have an informed debate about hunting and its supposed importance to our foreign policy.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.