To kill a mockingbird

The Government insists that granting hunting licenses for the Houbara bustard to dignitaries from Gulf Arab states is a cornerstone of Pakistan-Gulf relations. The judiciary differs. Safiullah Ghauri weighs in on the matter

To kill a mockingbird
On September 23rd 2015 a bruised and bleeding woman was seen screaming and attempting to scale the eight-foot wall of a multimillion dollar mansion in Los Angeles. Inside, the police found two more women being held captive. All three women had the same story to tell: they were employed by a Saudi prince as caretakers of the house and during their employment they witnessed the prince indulge in extreme debauchery on a daily basis. When in a worse mood, he attempted rape and beat up the women whilst saying “You’re not a woman! You’re nobody! I’m a prince and I’ll do what I want and nobody will do anything to me”. The prince was identified as Majed bin Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, son of the late King Abdullah. He was arrested by the LAPD. However this did not stop his relatives from doing ‘what they wanted’. Almost a month later, his cousin Prince Abdel Mohsen Bin Walid Bin Abdul Aziz was arrested trying to smuggle two tons of mixed class-A drugs through a Lebanese airport. This was the biggest drug-bust in the history of Lebanon. Earlier, another member of the same family was convicted of murdering his homosexual lover and servant in London, for which he received a life sentence. These are just some of the countless stories that have emerged about Saudi princes and their unabashed hedonism, fueled by petrodollars and an innate disregard for basic humanity.

Whilst in other countries they get arrested for their crimes, in Pakistan they are a symbol of holiness: because they are the protectors of Islam and the Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques. Here they are held in tremendous respect and awe for their religious status, extravagant displays of wealth and the abundance of wives (and concubines) around them.

Falconry is a time-honoured tradition in the Gulf states
Falconry is a time-honoured tradition in the Gulf states

To put the incident in perspective, the prince essentially wiped out between 3-6% of all Houbara bustards in the world, in one fell swoop

The Gulf Arab prince gets what he wants.

This is where the Houbara bustard comes in. Locally known as “Tilor”, this medium-sized, golden, spotted bird has a reputation for being an aphrodisiac in Arab tradition. The Houbara bustard is the largest bird of the canary family and is approximately 60 cm in height. The female Houbara gives birth to an average of two offspring every year. Due to current changes in weather and disruption of its ecosystem, only one bird on an average survives. This vulnerable bird is shy and has adapted to arid, desert conditions. The Houbara is particularly attractive during its mating season, when male birds put on a flamboyant display of raised white feathers over the head and neck. As a result of over-hunting, this bird is now ranking high on the list of endangered species with only 55,000 to 75,000 birds remaining. The reduction in population of this bird is particularly alarming for the heritage of Pakistani people because it is the symbol of Balochistan and its awesome beauty has inspired Baloch artists and folk singers for centuries.

The Houbara bustard is a migratory bird and starts its treacherous journey to Pakistan from Mongolia and the Central Asian Republics for the winter. Some 25,000 to 35,000 birds arrive in Pakistan, mostly in the region of Balochistan whilst some go to the Cholistan Desert near Bahawalpur for breeding. Soon after their arrival in Pakistan, a second migration takes place: this time it is rich Gulf Arabs who arrive on private airplanes with their luxurious huts, harems and hummers. They bring with them falcons, traps, shotguns and lots of money to ensure that their hunting trips are successful.

Proud hunters
Proud hunters

One such trip, however, put the Houbara bustard in the spotlight: not only as a cultural symbol of Balochistan, but also of the possibility that Pakistan might finally be taking a stance for its wildlife. In January 2014, Pakistan was visited by Saudi Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud for a Houbara-hunting trip. In what seemed to be a deliberate yet failed attempt to render the entire species extinct, the prince hunted down 2,100 of the birds in a period of ten days. To put the incident in perspective, the prince essentially wiped out between 3-6% of all Houbara bustards in the world, in one fell swoop. His prize was laid out proudly and pictures were taken of the hunt with their wings spread out to showcase the prowess of the prince and his team. This picture went viral, causing public outrage. Several groups spoke out against this massacre, petitions were filed in courts and letters were even sent to Pfizer to donate viagra to the Prince. During his hunt, the prince had heavily violated the terms of his hunting license, which allows for the hunting of 100 birds at most, for a limited period of 3 days. The hunting grounds are also clearly specified in the license, which prohibits any license-holder explicitly from entering protected breeding areas in Koh-i-Sultan, so as to ensure that the birds at least produce some offspring. This did not, however, prevent the prince from going there and killing 582 birds. The prince then left Pakistan without any problems, with bags of his trophies. It might be interesting to mention that the Prince himself is the Governor of Tabuk province in Saudi Arabia and has been working to promote ecotourism in his own province. The reporters who reported this slaughter have also added that this is only one report and other such incidents have gone by unreported.

This review petition is particularly interesting because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has filed it. The petition points to several aspects of Pakistan's relationship with the Gulf countries

After the VIP farewell for the prince, the massacre of this magnificent bird was challenged successfully in the Balochistan High Court and in the resulting judgment, the allotment of hunting licenses was declared illegal. The BHC took into account that Pakistan is a signatory to the International Wildlife Conservation Convention and therefore all hunting, netting, trapping and killing by any method of this endangered bird is illegal. This rare bird also falls under the third schedule of the Balochistan Wildlife Act 1976 and is listed as a protected animal: hence even its capture - let alone hunting - is prohibited.

This decision was met with joy by civil society activists across Pakistan but the PML-Q faction in Balochistan held protests against the decision in Quetta, deriding the decision as unfair because it does not take into account the money which Arabs spend on their trips. The PPP-led government of Sindh reacted to this judgement by issuing a notification stating “hunting of Houbara Bustards would be allowed to special permit holders”. This notification of the Sindh Government was eventually taken in appeal to the Supreme Court, where the ban was upheld. In a detailed judgement, the Supreme Court stated that the ban on hunting of Houbara bustards is legal because hunting them is a contravention of various provincial wildlife protection Ordinances and Acts. In addition, Pakistan has an obligation to fulfill its commitments as a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and also the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). The Supreme Court, during the course of this proceeding, observed that Pakistan’s international legal commitments are not saleable commodities and that by doing so the government debased, degraded and demeaned the citizens of Pakistan.


This bold judgment marked the first attempt to free Pakistan from Gulf Arab cultural imperialism but was immediately met with contempt and ridicule from the government. An example is the spokesperson of the Punjab government, Zaeem Qadri, who publicly stated that Pakistan should not accept aid from Saudi Arabia if we are not even willing to let their dignitaries hunt here. The Foreign Office issued hunting licenses to 28 such Arab dignitaries, including the Saudi Prince Fahd bin Sultan who had caused this uproar to begin with, for winter 2015. The federal government then filed a review of this judgement before the Supreme Court, asking it to reconsider its decision.

This review petition is particularly interesting because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has filed it. The petition points to several aspects of Pakistan’s relationship with the Gulf countries. In the review petition, the Foreign Office pleads to the court that this ban will have a direct bearing on Pakistan’s already weakened relations with the Gulf countries. They argue that Arabs love their falcons and hunting the Houbara is part of training falcons, which is an ancient Arab tradition. They go on to state that inviting Arab dignitaries to hunt is the ‘cornerstone of our foreign policy’. Their argument goes to the extent that by allowing the hunting of Houbara bustards, our interest in this bird will be heightened and Pakistan will make a better effort for its conservation.

The Houbara bustard is seen as an aphrodisiac in Gulf Arab tradition
The Houbara bustard is seen as an aphrodisiac in Gulf Arab tradition

I would like to give the Foreign Office the benefit of doubt and assume that during the drafting of this case, they were not really paying much attention. Surely the Pakistan-Gulf relationship is about more than allowing a few Arabs to hunt vulnerable species? Surely this act of hunting by 28 people cannot constitute the ‘cornerstone of our foreign policy’? Shouldn’t the cornerstone be a loftier goal like achieving world peace or at least regional hegemony? Surely we have not been reduced to the point where, if we disallow certain individuals from hunting threatened species as per our international obligations, that is, by implementing on them the same rules we have always had for our citizens, our relations with an entire region would crumble? What happened to the brotherhood of Muslims and ties of friendship we are always told about?

It cannot be disputed that falconry is cherished by Gulf Arabs as a sport and tradition. It’s obvious because once the bustard was fairly common in all these countries. The fact that it has disappeared entirely from the region should be an indication of how Gulf Arabs hunt the birds and why we should act now in order to save them.

Allowing certain special Arab dignitaries to hunt whilst specifically prohibiting every Pakistani from doing the same is another deeply problematic aspect of the government’s policy. A Pakistani cannot pay a license fee similar to a Saudi prince and hunt Houbara bustards. This discrimination of the state against its own citizens flies against articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. By treating Pakistanis as second-class citizens and allowing a few rich foreigners to slaughter rare wildlife, the state does a great disservice to its citizens.

The Houbara bustard, in watercolour
The Houbara bustard, in watercolour

Pakistan refers to Saudi Arabia as its closest Muslim ally. Pakistan has sent countless labourers and professionals to build up Saudi Arabia. The Pakistani military has been providing extensive support, arms and training to the Saudi military. Approximately 15,000 Pakistani soldiers are stationed in Saudi Arabia at all times to protect the kingdom. Pakistan’s commitment to the kingdom can be gauged by the fact that when Pakistan refused to participate in the recent Saudi war on Yemen, it found itself berated by various Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia on the other hand, apart from providing oil and some aid, viewed Pakistan as a fertile ground for its brand of Islam. It is well-known that certain Saudi high-ups have been actively involved in the funding of religious extremist groups in Pakistan. The funding has been running into hundreds of millions of dollars. WikiLeaks cables reveal that poor families are targeted. These brainwashed products of Saudi-funded seminaries have often conducted suicide attacks on innocent Pakistanis and waged war on our land. The recent Mina stampede incident further shows the Saudi view of Pakistanis, when dead bodies of people from Iranian and Indian origins were carefully returned to their countries and bodies of Pakistanis were unceremoniously buried in mass graves. The hunting of the Houbara bustard is yet another painful reminder that we are victims of an abusive and a one-sided relationship.
The hunting of the Houbara bustard is yet another painful reminder that we are victims of an abusive and a one-sided relationship

Apart from the diplomatic aspects, the hunting of endangered species forces us to think about the environment. In Pakistan, our approach to the environment has been anthropocentric. Humans, being the superior organism, have the right to exploit and destroy all other species as when they please. The ecosystem does not follow human reasoning or intentions and instead works in a web of interdependence. Perhaps by considering ourselves to be an organic part of the environment we live in, we can move from our anthropocentric perspective to a “biocentric” thought process where we see ourselves as members and not conquerors of the biosphere. We have no right to take away from our progeny the awe of looking at wild species or from future scientists the observations they might make regarding such species. Even if hunting is to be understood as a hobby, who is to say that it is a hobby superior to bird-watching or wildlife photography? Why should Pakistan have to accommodate such a destructive hobby, in which irreplaceable life-forms are wiped out?

The slaughter of the Houbara bustard is no longer simply a matter of hunting for sport. It has become a question of the pride of our people because this bird is the symbol of Pakistan’s resistance to those individuals who treat this country and its resources as their playthings. A hunting permit for killing a hundred Houbara bustards is priced at ten million rupees, but what is the value of the dignity of 190 million people?

It is a question of what we think of ourselves. It is a question of what we have inherited and what we will leave for our children. It has become a basic question: if this bird disappears, what kind of people will we have become?