Asian Houbara: Victim of Soft Diplomacy in Pakistan

The endangered Asian Houbara Bustard is in the news again. In the last days of December 2016, the Pakistani government, after Qatar, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, dispensed special permits to the royalty of Bahrain to hunt the Houbara in Pakistan.

What is the Asian Houbara Bustard?

Macqueenii (MacQueen’s bustard) or Asian Houbara is a large bird of Houbara Bustard family. The chicken-sized, sandy coloured bird nests in parts of Central Asia including east of the Sinai Peninsula in Palestine, Arabia, and the Aral Sea in Mongolia.

The Asian Houbara, in thousands, migrates to drylands of Pakistan in the winters that give country’s leaders a chance to engage in ‘soft diplomacy.’

Extensive hunting caused up to 50 percent decline in the worldwide population of this species. The global population of Asian Houbara in 2014 was estimated to be between 78,960 and 97,000.

Due to the drastic fall in the population, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed it on its “red list” of threatened species and Pakistan is also its signatory.

The bird was extensively hunted in Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain in the late 80’s, thus nearly reached to it’s extinction.

The IUCN, in collaboration with local governments, set up breeding sanctuaries in these countries to save the Chlamydotis vanishing species of this fast-flying bird.

Now according to a report from The Al-Sayd Reserve in Saudi Arabia, a remarkable recovery of native vegetation and “the successful reintroduction of the endangered Arabian oryx, Asian houbara bustard, ostriches and sand gazelles” has been noticed.

Ironically, while these Arabs are busy protecting their endangered species at home; they don’t mind slaughtering a threatened species elsewhere, especially in Pakistan.

Every year, at the same time in winter when thousands of Asian houbara fly to Pakistan in mid-November, Arab princes and their friends come to the country to play their bloodsport through falconry.

They do it both as sports and for the meat of the Asian houbara, as they consider it an aphrodisiac, but there is no scientific evidence.

Asian Houbara Causes Political Row in Pakistan

Houbara hunting was banned in Pakistan for several years. But, last February, the Supreme Court of the country lifted the ban, allowing ‘special permits’ to limited people for ‘controlled hunting’ of the bird.

The verdict triggered an outrage in native people who suspected the Arab influence behind the decision.

However, the fun began, when in November, the government issued a special permit to Qatari royals, including, Prince Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani to hunt houbara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region (KP – a southern province of Pakistan.)

KP is governed by the country’s main opposition party Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf. Its chief Imran Khan, the former cricketer, ordered its government in KP to impose a blanket ban on houbara killing.

Relation Between Qatari Prince and Sitting Government

The supporters of the ruling party suspect Imran Khan’s decision to ban houbara hunt in the province was more of a political move than a conservation of the migratory bird. The reason they give is the ‘Qatari letter’ that almost saved Nawaz Sharif.

The story unfolds as the ruling party of the country, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) is the country’s top businessman, Nawaz Sharif’s party.

Imran Khan and his party have been running a strong campaign against the government ever since Prime Minister Nawaz and the family were named in the infamous ‘Panamagate’ last year.

The case reached the top court and at some point, it seemed Nawaz Sharif will have no escape — just when a letter issued by former Qatari prime minister Shaikh Hammad bin Jassim was produced in court in support of his case.

The letter referred to blossoming relation and business dealings between fathers of PM Sharif, and the Shaikh’s father.

The letter also mentioned the sale of these business assets in the Gulf provided funds for the Mayfair apartments in London (which was questioned by the court).

Political Row over the Asian Houbara

The sudden and unforeseen entry of the Qatari prince’s letter somewhat saved the day for Nawaz, but, this gave an open field for opposition to put ruling family’s relation to question and that the prince is trying to help PM Sharif get away with “ill-gotten money”.

Regardless of its ‘political importance’ in the country, if grave measures are not taken to conserve this bird, it might as well wither into the pages of natural history books just like the Labrador duck, passenger pigeon and other extinct species.

About Syed Ahmed Raza

Ahmed is a 24-years-old young and energetic guy from Karachi, Pakistan. He’s a fledgling journalist but a seasoned blogger. He loves to read thrilling novels, and classical poetry. Arzan also loves to watch and play cricket. Reading, writing and listening to music — these are what shape his personality.

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