It’s Houbara Season


Iftekhar A Khan

The medical care provided to “royal” falcons in Abu Dhabi may be much better than that given to Pakistani citizens in government hospitals.

When the weather changes from sizzling summers to winters, houbara bustards migrate to our country from Russia, China and the Central Asian States to escape the harsh winters. The internationally protected bird never knows what kind of reception awaits it on landing here. Well, it’s a royal reception.
Arab royals have been given permits to hunt houbara in Sindh province. The provincial government issued Houbara hunting permits for Falconry Season 2021-2022. Fourteen Arab royals given permits to hunt the endangered houbara include big names from the royalties of the Arab countries. Different districts of Sindh have been allocated to various royals according to their status to sate their passion for houbara hunting. When the PTI ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa only, the party chief didn’t allow Arab dignitaries to hunt houbara in the province.
But why Houbara, and why not any other bird that offers meat more delicious in taste such as the partridge? People think that Arab royals hunt the Houbara as a sport. But that’s not the only reason. The far outweighing aspect of hunting houbara is its aphrodisiac quality. Whether it’s a myth or reality is another matter. The royals know better.
Mary Weaver, a reporter of the New Yorker, once covered a houbara hunting trip of the Arab dignitaries. She stood near the tarmac to witness the spectacle of how an executive Learjet landed and a red carpet rolled out to welcome the royal dignitary. The Learjet was followed by two customised Boeings and a fleet of reconfigured C-130s, which flew two abreast. Alongside her stood a local notable who couldn’t help commenting and said, “You know, madam, these Arabs consider houbara an aphrodisiac. But some of them, madam, eat one houbara a day, sometimes two if it’s a special occasion. That means they may eat as many as 500 birds a year.”
So insatiable is the appetite for houbara that Tabuk Governor Prince Fahad bin Sultan hunted 2,000 houbaras last year and invited the attention of international media. And so overexcited the Governor was over his cache that he even forgot to pay the mandatory houbara hunting fees of $100,000, according to a press report. Such a huge cache is transported back to the kingdom in refrigerated planes – part of the entourage.
But what a coincidence that falcon and houbara, the predator and its prey, are both migratory birds. And both migrate to our temperate regions to save themselves from freezing winters of the northern regions. Since Arab royals relish hunting houbaras by falcons, the falcons must be poached and trained to bring the houbara down when unleashed on the clumsily flying bird. Falcons are, therefore, netted and sold to the traffickers who pass them on to the agents of the royal enthusiasts in the Gulf States. Reportedly, last October, the authorities seized dozens of falcons whose worth in Gulf markets amounted to more than $1 million, according to a falcon conservationist.
Falcon poaching in Pakistan has developed into an industry in itself. Netting falcons and dispatching them to the Gulf States has become a thriving trade. No wonder that Margit Muller, director of a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi, said that the hospital treated more than 11,000 falcons annually. The medical care provided to “royal” falcons in Abu Dhabi may be much better than medical attention given to Pakistani citizens of the lower strata of society in the local government hospitals.
The irony, however, is that royals are multiplying while the houbara population is dwindling. In neighbouring India, houbara hunting has been banned since 1970. But we continue to give hunting permits to Arab royals, not only to keep them in good humour but also to earn their favours. After all, Saudis do provide us badly-needed forex even if it’s only meant for the purpose of showing deposits to negotiate IMF loans. This kind of situation often arises when a nation lives beyond its means. If the houbara goes extinct, it matters less.
Nonetheless, the aphrodisiac efficacy of the houbara bustard remains debatable. Maybe it’s nature’s way of controlling the houbara population by instilling an overpowering desire in the Arab royalty to hunt and stock the prized possession to last until the next hunting season. The anti-climax is that what the royals consider an aphrodisiac, the doctors think is only diuretic. Try a houbara if you like.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist and can be reached at pinecity