Houbara hunts for petro pesos

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Winfried Winiewski

After the shooting of Cecil the lion, Roger Moore was in a rage – and he wanted the world to know it. ‘In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement,’ Mr. Moore wrote in The Telegraph, ‘it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get thrills from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.’

Her Majesty’s Secret Serviceman continued, ‘”Sport” hunting is a sickness, a perversion […] People who get their “amusement” from hunting and killing defenceless animals can only be suffering from a mental disorder.’

That this is Mr. Moore, best known for hunting human beings as James Bond, is worthy of our attention. That this is Pakistan, land of the endangered animal, requires we sit up and take notice.

But that may mean saving another species nearing extinction: our moral courage.

For the longest time, Pakistan’s offered itself up as a playground for patrons big and small. In our defence, we’re all about service: from sating the Greatest of Great Games, to meeting the Gulf’s greed for magic meat – the houbara bustard, we’re told, acts as an aphrodisiac.

Let’s wrap our heads around that one. Having driven them near-extinct in the Gulf, the Middle East’s most royal royals have set their sights on the survivors.

And have for long. A gent named Salem bin Laden made his way here as early as ‘84. The world’s most ironic common link – Osama’s half-brother and George W.’s business partner – Salem took his hunts seriously.

Reads Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens,

[Salem wanted] an elaborate Saudi royal hunting expedition to Pakistan that [he] seemed to envision as a blend of Arabian Nights and Dr. Seuss […] he and his Saudi guests, who were princes in the royal family, would camp in the desert and hunt by falconry in the traditional way, but they would also equip themselves with flying toys. He [wanted to] buy and prepare a twenty-foot Wells Cargo trailer […] Salem had also ordered a hot air balloon from a champion balloonist in Florida […] Salem liked to have musicians in his entourage; [George] Harrington played the guitar, so Salem arranged to hire him to travel to Pakistan, where he could help oversee the ultralight flying by the royal guests.

But the party ended early: Pakistan went queasy over the idea of ‘Saudi princes flying around in uncontrolled small planes and balloons.’ Salem ‘fumed, and tried to pull strings, but the Pakistani authorities stood firm; they told him to send his airborne toys back to Dubai.’

Hardly a victory, security of hunter over sanctity of hunted. Fast-forward exactly thirty years later, and see where we’ve gotten: in 21 days from January to February, 2014, another prince shot 2,100 houbara birds dead – as if we’d ordered prescription extinction.

And another year down, the state’s gone to court…to fight for the royals’ rights instead. The first offender was the Balochistan government, followed by Sindh, then finally Islamabad (only KP sat it out).

On the line is the fate of the houbara bustard – the Supreme Court banned the hunt in August, moments after Jawwad S. Khawaja was sworn in as Chief Justice. The provinces thought otherwise and filed a review, with the state bringing backup.

Mention this bird and get hit with the usual what-aboutery: what about the Big Issues? What about Real People? What about Terror? There’s even an African import making the rounds: what about the starving babies of Thar? Would those animal rights types care to comment on that?

Well, last anyone checked, they did comment: everyone commented, the world commented, the Sindh government incited the deepest disgust (more organ music for the PPP’s funeral) and relief drives doubled and doubled again. Then again, the gents behind this are more invested in invalid arguments than saving either babies or bustards.

But no one was expecting the other argument. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headless as ever, had the body type up the review petition. Inviting Arab dignitaries to hunt in Pakistan, we learned, was a ‘cornerstone of foreign policy;’ the bird was classified ‘vulnerable’ rather than ‘endangered’; and the houbara population was stable.

The petition also refers to Pakistan’s staying out of Yemen, arguing that ‘allowing Arab dignitaries to hunt would be pivotal in restoring Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with [Saudi Arabia].’ Said dignitaries also shower us in ‘funds’, the petition winks.

What a case.

Firstly, reams of evidence point to the global houbara population falling through the floor. Second, Yemen: staying out of it was the strategic thing, the brave thing, the moral thing. Taking the right stand is nothing to compensate others for.

Third, relationships: are ties so fragile they rest on whether these princes blast birds out of the sky?

Fourth, funds: it’s a sad day when Pakistan’s local laws are thought purchasable by the same state that put them there. Might as well douse the Balochistan Wildlife Protection Act, the Punjab Wildlife Protection Act, and the Sindh Wildlife Protection Ordinance in (subsidized) petrol, and set them alight.

To their credit, the courts have been hunting the hunters with consistency. Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, among the Lahore High Court’s most respected, stayed the hunting a while ago. And in the SC decision, Justice Qazi Faez Isa quoted a Sufi poet,

The birds in flocks fly,
Comradeship they do not decry,
Behold, among the birds there is more loyalty
Than among us, who call ourselves humanity.

The courts are clear, but that’s no cause for complacency. Yes, the houbara bustard – by most reports a voiceless animal – has plenty voices raised in its defence. But we must extend the conversation to the rest of Pakistan’s endangered species: our snow leopards, our markhors, our hog deer. Our most endangered bird isn’t even the houbara; it’s the red-headed vulture, and it’s just about gone.

Also near-extinct is Naran’s gharial; a gator hunted left, right and centre by poachers. Our blind dolphins are fading from the Indus too, courtesy irrigation schemes and industrial poisons. Throw in the world’s second-highest deforestation rate, and one can only hope the houbara fires up a trend that sticks: that we fight for the wildlife we inherit, before we almost certainly fail it.

Concluded Roger Moore, ‘We know that we should protect the most vulnerable and helpless in society, not destroy them – much less derive pleasure from doing so.’

But in Pakistan, the houbara bustard isn’t the only innocent we take pleasure in destroying. It’s time we changed that, for houbara and human alike.