By Zubeida Mustafa
LAST Wednesday, a little over 20 Karachiites gathered in front of the Sindh Wildlife Office to raise their voices to prevent the extinction of the houbara bustard, the elegant and colourful bird that makes its appearance in parts of Sindh and Balochistan in the winter months.
The houbara story in this country is a long one and the size of the demo in that context was not big enough to attract public attention. But being in the designated Red Zone (the Governor’s House is in the vicinity of the Sindh Wildlife Office) the protest was at once noticed by the custodians of the law.
Deeming the protesters to be harmless the police allowed them to stand there for a while before they moved on to the Karachi Press Club on the suggestion of the law enforcers. That was a clever step as anything happening at the KPC has a better chance of getting some media coverage.
Yet I feel this protest was of great significance. Probably for the first time some people in Pakistan were willing to speak up for the endangered houbara. We certainly have come a long way. I remember in the 1990s, the then editor of Dawn had sent me to one of those meetings the Ministry of Information was fond of convening periodically to remind the press of the boundaries of its freedom — needless to say very restricted.
The meeting had a single item agenda — the houbara bustard. The peremptory orders were: no names to be quoted please. The role of the Arab sheikhs and princes in the destruction of the houbara bustard was not to be publicised. These rulers were after all our friends and we had to welcome them. So it is progress of sorts that today we can demonstrate and circulate pictures of butchered houbaras held up by their killers.
What has not changed, however, is the vulnerability of the houbara — it continues to be an endangered species. In fact, what has grown is the passion of Gulf rulers for houbara hunting and the avarice of our own rulers for petrodollars.
According to this paper, 33 “special” permits have been issued for the current hunting season to various emirs, sheikhs and businessmen from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with each permit allowing 100 kills. Last year the number was 25. This is in gross violation of the law as this bird is said to be protected since it is in danger of extinction.
Animal lovers are shocked by the brutality inflicted on these migratory birds. The licences allow hunting only by falconry. The protesters were demanding that the permits be revoked and the official responsible for issuing them be taken to task.
The government has announced that there will be a moratorium on houbara hunting in the 2014-2015 hunting season. But one can well ask, why not immediately?
The fact of the matter is that it requires two to tango. Pakistan is guilty of neglecting wildlife (remember the green turtles) and in this case of allowing the wanton destruction of birds that are our winter guests.
The hunters from the Gulf give an ironic twist to the situation. Recognising the threat of extinction of this beautiful specimen of nature conventionally hunted by falconry, Abu Dhabi has set up the International Fund for Houbara Conservation that has launched breeding programmes to boost the number of their own birds. This is important for the survival of their falcons that feed on houbara meat.
The houbara population has declined by 35pc in the last two decades. It is strange logic that the Gulf states should be preserving the birds in their region while poaching on the houbaras that visit Pakistan from China.
In the end analysis, Pakistan’s government machinery must take responsibility for the ills caused by the houbara hunters. Beginning with the “special” permits, one can well ask why they are granted to any royalty from an oil-rich sheikhdom just for the asking. They can be refused but are not because the payoffs they fetch to individuals are lucrative.
Given the long record of overkill and the absence of any checking mechanism there is no way to determine the number of birds hunted. Small wonder the casualties are more than officially sanctioned. This would not have been possible had Pakistan taken a firm stand to safeguard its own interests.
A classic example of some individuals being the illegal beneficiaries of this annual hunting gala are the expensive perks they leave behind for their benefactors. The numerous Prados with Dubai number plates that ply with impunity on the Karachi roads are gifts of the houbara hunters. These vehicles are never registered and no taxes and duties are ever paid on them. This only encourages corruption and ostentation of the worst kind.
In a country where it is easy to entice people in authority with offerings such as these one cannot condone this wrongdoing. If we had a strong tradition of honesty and integrity we could have resisted all the malpractices and saved the houbara bustard without much ado.