Pakistan violates law to permit Arab royals’ illegal safaris


The Third Pole, Balochistan, Pakistan

Reports of a Saudi prince killing more than 2,100 endangered birds in Pakistan highlights the need for stricter implementation of wildlife protection laws and control over issuing  permits

(Photo by shankar s.)

Pakistan authorities allowed the Saudi prince to kill 2% of the total global population of the houbara bustard during a recent hunting spree. (Photo by shankar s.)

More than 2,100 protected houbara bustards were hunted during a Saudi prince’s visit to Pakistan’s Balochistan province in January this year, the most recent instance of the poor implementation of wildlife protection laws and inadequate conservation measures in the country, say outraged environmentalists.

The news that Saudi Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud himself poached as many as 1,977 endangered birds while other members of his brigade hunted 123 birds during a three-week hunting trip in  north-west Pakistan’s Chagai district has created a furore.

The hunting spree, first reported in Pakistan’s English newspaper Dawn in April, highlights the saga of official apathy, petty fines and the inability of provincial wildlife departments to deal with the escalating problem of illegal hunting. Even independent wildlife conservation organisations like WWF-PakistanIUCN- Pakistan and Pakistan Wildlife Foundation did not lodge a formal protest.

The man who sent out the news to the world was Jaffar Baloch, divisional forest officer of the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department in Chagai district. He sent a report to the department’s head office in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, and the foreign office in the national capital Islamabad.

“In fact, the permits for hunting the internationally protected bird are person-specific and can be no way used by anyone else other than the person in whose name the permit is issued,” Baloch told over the phone. The permit, he added, allows the holder to hunt not more than 100 houbara bustards in as many as 10 days and that too in specific allocated areas, not in wildlife protected or park areas.

“But unfortunately, the Saudi prince kept hunting the birds for 21 days, most of them from wildlife reserves and protected areas,” added a senior wildlife conservator in the Balochistan Wildlife and Forest headquarters in Quetta on condition of anonymity.

According to provincial wildlife laws, hunting of the globally endangered and protected houbara bustard is banned in Pakistan. But the federal government issues special permits to royals from Gulf states through the foreign office, said a senior official.

“The royal party apparently violated the permits and took down birds over the limit in reserves and protected areas,” he said.

He alleged that locals, including officials, politicians and wildlife field staff, are plied with gifts and said the government had been issuing special houbara hunting permits. “This is why even local community members pave the way for as much hunting as pleases them (the Arab royals).”

Arab hunters, who use trained falcons to kill the bustards, are allotted private hunting grounds in Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab provinces.

Houbara bustards are also illegally hunted and trapped in Pakistan, and then shipped to Arab countries so they can be used for training falcons. The bird is a favourite target because, like the horns of the critically endangered rhinoceros, its meat is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

In the southern province of Sindh, for instance, 33 permits were issued for the hunting season of this year.

Earlier this year, responding to the concerns of civil society organisations against the hunting of houbara bustards, the provincial high court took action against the issuance of permits by the foreign ministry and ordered representatives of the permit holders to appear before the court.

While they did not appear, the judges ordered a ban on hunting of the houbara bustards on February 10 all across Sindh province. But the hunting of the migratory birds went on unchecked in adjoining Balochistan.

Asked for a response to the court ban on houbara bustard hunting in Sindh, foreign office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam told “It has remained a decades-old tradition since Arab princes come to Pakistan in pursuit of the houbara bustard.”

According to officials, Arab royalty has long enjoyed the privilege of hunting in Pakistan, where more than 70 wildlife sanctuaries and game parks have been set aside for them.

They say Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar are home to a large number of Pakistani expatriate workers and the government does not want to damage ties. Remittances by expat workers continue to prop the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

The Saudi prince hunted 2% of the total global population of the houbara bustard (about 110,000 birds), said an angry Aleem Chaudhry from the Pakistan Wildlife Foundation.

“Sheikhs of Gulf Arab states have long been allowed hunting and poaching of wildlife animals, many of them endangered and endemic,” Chaudhry said.

Wildlife Conservator at the Pakistan’s Climate Change Division, Umeed Khalid, added that the houbara bustard is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as vulnerable to extinction and feared to be decreasing by 30% a year in Pakistan alone.

The birds are globally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he said, stressing the need for efforts at all levels to contain the hunting.

According to WWF-Pakistan Director General Ali Hasan Habib, surveys should be conducted on any species listed as threatened– before hunting permits are issued. He also said the hunting should be closely monitored.

In his view, protected areas and breeding grounds of the houbara bustard must remain exempt from any hunting.  The introduction of trophy hunting programmes – selective hunting of wild animals – would help increase the houbara bustard population as well as provide funds for development programmes and generate livelihoods in and around sanctuaries, he said.

Such economic incentives would not just motivate community-based organisations to play their part in containing illegal hunting but also help them be biodiversity protectors.

According to wildlife journalist Bhagwandas, the onus rests with the government, particularly the foreign ministry in Islamabad, which issues the hunting permits.

The Pakistani state might want to be hospitable to foreign friends who want to hunt the migratory bird but it should not be in violation of local wildlife laws and international covenants framed and implemented to protect endangered wildlife, he commented.

Asked for his reaction, Balochistan home secretary Asad Gilani refused to comment on the issue. Pressed to respond to a question on the role of his department in the implementation of wildlife conservation laws, he said, “It is the sole responsibility of the wildlife authorities to stop illegal hunting …”