Alarm bells ring over hunting of rare India-bound birds in Pakistan
Mohammed Iqbal

A leading environmental group working for conservation of flora and fauna has sought intervention of the External Affairs Ministry to put pressure on Pakistan to ban hunting of rare birds, Houbara bustards, which has drastically reduced India's share of their annual winter migration and affected the desert eco-system.

The hunting of Houbara bustards, taxonomically classified as Clamydotis undulata, through falconry in Pakistan has led to an alarming decline in their numbers. The poaching mainly in Sindh province along the international border is not only a cause of serious concern for India but also in violation of wildlife protection laws and international conventions. The Tourism & Wildlife Society of India has pointed out in a letter to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid that the desert regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat are not benefiting from the rare birds as a result of their hunting in Pakistan. The species has been declared vulnerable due to a more than 60 per cent decline in its global population even as India's share in the Houbara's migration is “bagged” in the neighbouring country.

TWSI honorary general secretary Harsh Vardhan has requested Mr. Khurshid to intervene and ensure that Pakistan imposes a complete ban on “wanton falconry” as such acts amount to a “brazen mockery” of the conservation legislation.

India invited similar falconry during 1970s when the Arab royals used to camp in western Rajasthan districts and hunt the great Indian bustards, Houbara bustards and other endangered birds. This practice was brought to a halt forever in 1978-79 through public protests in Jaipur, New Delhi and Mumbai and finally through a stay order granted by the Rajasthan High Court.

After the hunting of protected birds was banned in India, the Arab falconers initiated Houbara captive breeding programmes in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and reintroduced thousands of these birds back into the wild. “Why don't they better falcon-sport self-bred birds within [their] own regions rather than poach the flocks naturally meant to reach India?” asked Mr. Vardhan.

The Arab royals also used to visit Iran and Afghanistan for falconry till late 1970s. Since the fall of the Shah of Iran and the prolonged war in Afghanistan, Pakistan became a favourite destination for the bird hunters. Though Pakistan banned hunting of birds in 1972, it is not enforced against the royal guests from the West Asian countries who believe that the Houbara meat has mythical aphrodisiac qualities.

Significantly, the issue of Houbara hunting across the borders has been taken up with the Rajasthan State Wildlife Advisory Board in the past. At one of the Board's meetings in 2007, Mr. Vardhan had suggested that the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje write to the Prime Minister to ask Pakistan to immediately check hunting through falconry. Ms. Raje had observed that the endangered bird species need urgent attention.

Mr. Vardhan has conveyed to Mr. Khurshid the willingness of ornithologist Asad R. Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society and Ravi Singh of the World Wildlife Fund-India to help the Union Government work out this issue of “immense international significance”.

“Knowing your positive inclination towards wildlife conservation, we are appealing to you to ensure a better life for this species, denied in Pakistan,” he said.

Even as Houbara bustard is regarded as the provincial bird of Balochistan, the Federal authorities in Pakistan reportedly issue permits during the “hunting season” in Sindh province every year, with each permit allowing 100 birds to be hunted by the holder. Most of the permits go to royalty, rulers and influential people from countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia.

Named “Taloor” in Sindhi language, the Houbara bustards migrate from the cold northern regions of Siberia to the warmer regions of the world, including the Indian sub-continent. Bird-lovers describe it as a beautiful bird with a black stripe down the sides of its neck. It is usually 60 cm long with a 140 cm wingspan and is brown above and white below.

The Houbara bustard is listed in the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, also known as the Bonn Convention. Because of its increased hunting especially in its winter habitats, the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species has classified it as an endangered migratory bird.

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