Killing fields

The houbara bustard is being hunted into extinction. Are we prepared to remain mute spectators to this slaughter or will we stand up for this elegant, exuberant bird?

Published : Jul 09, 2014 12:30 IST

Trophy display after just one morning's hunt.

Trophy display after just one morning's hunt.

THE MacQueen’s bustard ( Chlamydotis macqueeni ), more popularly known as houbara, is essentially a bird of Central Asia, but post its breeding season each year, the larger bulk of the species chooses to winter in north-western Pakistan while a few thousand birds straggle across to Rajasthan and Gujarat in India.

Sighting an adult bird in its habitat is an experience of a lifetime. It is a handsome, sturdy and tall bird with velvet-soft, sandy-buff plumage. Perhaps the best visuals of the bird, showing both its exquisite elegance and its appearance of imperishability, were captured about a year ago by Zafar-ul Islam, a conservation scientist. A male houbara’s upright stance, chiselled head, long and sculpted neck, compact body, thickset legs and broad wings made for swift and powerful flight are on splendid display.

Sadly, when set upon by specially reared hunting falcons, the houbara crumbles into a heap of lifeless feathers on the desert sands. For instance, in January, as many as 250 birds were felled in just one morning’s outing; this gruesome fact, an arrogant display of mindless slaughter, was captured in a photograph (probably taken by Jaffar Baloch, the Divisional Forest Officer, Chagai, Balochistan). Surely, this is not what the Almighty had in mind when the Bible proclaims: “And God said, let us make Man in our image after our likeness…. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air....”

The noble philosophy of houbara hunting as expounded by the sheikhs to Mary Anne Weaver of The New Yorker holds little credibility because Shireen Mazari (central information secretary of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) informs us of the prevalent ground realities through an article in Dawn when Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud “hunted for 21 days—from January 11 to January 31, 2014—… bringing the total houbara bustard toll to 2,100”. Not only is this a gross violation of the tenets of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN, a United Nations entity) Red List of Endangered Species and of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) but that hunt also far exceeded the special permit for 200 birds granted by the Pakistan government, in itself violative of almost all international protocols on the conservation of species of critical concern.

However, to fully comprehend the enormity of the annual houbara massacre, one must know that at an average 15 like-minded hunting parties operate simultaneously across the bird’s winter migration flyways through north-western Baluchistan every year! And each group “bags” a similar number of the bird, making the overall sum of houbara killed mind-numbing to say the least. But why is this happening?

Well, the upper crust of society in the Arabian peninsula has felt driven to seek out varied pursuits of pleasure ever since the mid-1950s when the extraction of oil in Saudi Arabia became an established commercial enterprise. The unprecedented infusion of petrodollars into their coffers and the sustained surge of economic well-being encouraged the Saudis to expose their future generations to modern education and the lifestyles of the affluent West. In the event, hunting mammals using firearms and hunting “game birds” (almost exclusively the houbara) by setting falcons upon them emerged as one of their more favoured outdoor pursuits.

The affluent Arab youth also learnt to fend off the public outcry against “blood sports” by acquiring the idiomatic subtlety relating to the transition from blood sports to “field sports” in which the new paradigm was packaged on the premise that the hunter and his quarry operated on a “level playing field”. This, of course, has remained for all intent and purposes a fundamentally deceitful subterfuge because, for instance, houbara hunters no longer go after their quarry on foot with a rifle in hand or a falcon perched upon their shoulders, but instead use the latest all-terrain SUVs to close in on and outpace the objects of their hunt. And in addition, the burgeoning money bags of the Saudi and Gulf emirate hunters have provided them access to state-of-the-art telemetry adjuncts, which in combination with firearms of proven lethality altogether negate the basic ethic of the field sports or level playing field idiom.

Little wonder, therefore, that by 1972, the Arabian oryx (a magnificent antelope endemic to the Arabian peninsula, which is a shade larger than the Indian Sambar deer) had been shot to extinction. In time, nature conservation bodies, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF International), would garner worldwide support and together with the IUCN persuade the Saudi royals to use some of their millions of petrodollars for the oryx captive breeding programme. Using the eleven surviving animals available in several zoos in the United States, the programme led to the eventual reintroduction of the species into the Arabian peninsula by the 1980s. Paradoxically, while the oryx revival project was on full steam, the Saudi and emirate sheikhs would feign ignorance of what had befallen the oryx and unmindfully keep hunting the houbara with gusto by setting falcons upon them, which was considered the ultimate “sport of kings”. So, as may be imagined, this bird too was found teetering on the abyss of extinction by the 1970s.

Fortunately, the House of Saud and its brotherhood from the emirates had grasped the potential of captive breeding through artificial insemination, both as a conservation tool to restock wild populations of diminishing species and as a means to maintain the numbers for hunting. But this entire initiative of buffering the houbara population in the region tended (and tends) to slide back to the status quo ante because concomitantly they have also set up breeding centres for the shaheen falcon ( Falco peregrinator ), the preferred option for hunting houbaras. The shaheen is a resident bird of India, and as the Arab doyens of falconry revolt at the thought of using an “incubated” shaheen for hunting, they do not give a second thought to parting with upwards of $2,000, and in one case even $275,000, to acquire a single progeny of free-ranging shaheens. And any sheikh who aspires to enter the league of aficionados of falconry must always maintain 10 to 30 shaheens (“king of birds”). Unfortunately, the “killer” prowess of the falcon declines sharply after the first five years of its lifespan, so falconers must cyclically induct younger birds in their aviaries, and this is causing a colossal ongoing iteration on the free-ranging shaheen populations in India.

Falconry is said to have originated in China 4,000 years ago. Among the pre-eminent practitioners of the sport were Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. The latter was introduced to it by the Persians and he in turn took it to Europe, where it flourished until the Middle Ages. Fortunately for India, falconry arrived with Babur and vanished with the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Yet, the world-wide popularity the sport has attained can be gauged from the following incident. In December 2007 in London, Sotheby’s put a 17th century painting by Willem Schellinks up for auction for £60,000. However, after an art historian identified the five figures in the foreground as Emperor Shah Jahan tutoring his four sons in the art of falconry, the painting went under the hammer for a staggering £3,78,000!

Of the 22 bustard species in the world, only six inhabited Asia, three each on either side of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan divide. The three species south of the Hindu Kush breed and live exclusively in India. And one of them is the famed great Indian bustard (GIB), which is also the largest bustard in the world. But today this majestic bird is also on the brink of extinction; according to the latest accepted estimates, its world-wide population is below 300. Back in the 1960s, it was a routine practice with the Government of India to extend diplomatic immunity to Saudi princes to enable them to cross over from Pakistan to Rajasthan-Gujarat in pursuit of both the migratory houbara bustard and the resident GIB.

However, on a cold November morning in 1973, about 1,000 motivated schoolchildren gathered at India Gate to lead a unique silent protest. Each child wore a drape-poster over his school uniform with the slogan in bold capital letters: “EAT CUSTARD; SPARE THE BUSTARD”. And they walked in total silence first to all the Gulf region embassies and then to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s residence. When the Prime Minister came out to receive the child-delegates, the youngest child (aged nine) made bold to remove his poster and gracefully presented it to her. The Prime Minister rose to the occasion and responded with alacrity, revoking forthwith the diplomatic immunity to the Saudi royals for hunting the houbara and/or the GIB in India. And, fortunately, no matter how much dependent India is on Saudi Arabia for its crude oil needs, that decision has remained in force ever since.

As falconry prevailed in West Asia without let, two of the three species north of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan divide, namely, the little and the Great bustard, were totally extirpated from Asia by 1975. Fortunately, the houbara is a prolific breeder and as late as the 1950s, between November and February, it “could be counted in the fields like butterflies” in north-western Pakistan. But four decades later, unremitting hunting and poaching had so drastically reduced the numbers that the Saudi royals had to deploy their fleet of reconfigured C-130 cargo aircraft in a military-like operation in and out of Balochistan to satisfy their fetish for falconry, especially in the Chagai district which lies across the primary winter migratory passage of the houbara. Mary Anne Weaver covered one such effort in December 1992 and gave this account of believe-it-or-not proportions:

“Some sheikhs have built personal airfields and constructed huge desert palaces in Baluchistan…. live in elaborate tent-cities, guarded by legions of Bedouin troops…. Some of them even drill their own waterholes.... And they put millions of petro-dollars into their hunts.… They also provide Pakistan with some three and a half million dollars annually in military and economic aide… the Saudi Royals alone kill at least 6,000 birds each season whose meat is supposed to have invigorating powers.”

Unfortunately, one feast on bustard flesh is not an all-time aphrodisiac panacea, so these misguided human studs must eat one bustard a day until kingdom come. Given the current surviving population of the houbara, the species could be wiped out in the wild by A.D. 2030. If that eventuality fails to trouble the conscience of the world, maybe Mary Anne Weaver’s description of the chilling climax of the hunt will churn everyone’s soul:

“We raced, dashing, lurching and jolting, in huge zigzag circles, following the two birds….. The shaheen soared for the sun, and came down on the houbara, attempting to break its neck. The houbara flew on furiously and the shaheen struck again. The two birds spiralled downward.... The baby houbara lay exhausted but was still trying to kick. The first thing the shaheen had done was blind its yellow eyes so that it could not run or fly away. Farouq [a camp follower] cut open the houbara’s stomach, retrieved its liver and fed it to the shaheen. He then hooded the falcon and ritually slit the baby houbara’s throat to conform with dietary laws. ‘Now it is halal,’ he said—permitted in Islam.”

When one has been exposed to the sheer elegance and exuberance of a living houbara (as captured by Zafar-ul Islam in his photographs), it is natural to throw up at the mere sight of the other image, the gut-churning, deliberate display of just one morning’s “hunt-trophy” comprising about 200 slain houbaras. Who would disagree with Mary Anne Weaver’s assertion that “this hunt was a far cry from the romantic image of the lone Arab walking across the desert in his flowing robe with his pet falcon perched nobly on his arm”, scouting for houbara for the table, in the spirit of field sports. Will we remain mute spectators or will we stand up for the houbara?

End Notes

1) The first book to deal exclusively with India’s natural history, Illustrations of Indian Zoology: Chiefly Selected from the Collection of Major General Thomas Hardwicke , was published by the British Museum of Natural History, in two volumes (1832-4), and among other illustrations are 92 birds, of which Plate 47 (Volume II) is given to the houbara.

2) The first text on Indian ornithology, Birds of India , published in three volumes (1864-6), is credited to Major T.C. Jerdon (a surgeon in the Madras Presidency Army).

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