Why Is the Houbara Bustard Making Headlines?

A royal hunting trip in Pakistan upsets conservationists with its extravagance.

With its opulent black-and-white cravat and elegant headdress, the Houbara Bustard resembles royalty in the bird world. Which might explain why it holds such appeal for Arab princes, who are keen on poaching it.

For decades princes from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have traveled to Pakistan to hunt the Houbara Bustard, which migrates from Central Asia to spend winters in Middle Eastern deserts. But now there’s a growing backlash against these princely pursuits, which conservationists say threaten the survival of the protected bird. In response, the high court of Pakistan issued hunting bans in two of the country’s provinces last year, making it illegal to collect bustards in those regions.

Despite this, in January a prominent Saudi prince, Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, arrived in Balochistan, one of the protected provinces, with all the trappings of a lavish annual hunt in tow: tents, jeeps, and hunting falcons (probably of the Saker variety). Some Pakistani officials deny that the hunt is taking place. But the prince’s arrival has nevertheless provoked another outburst from conservationists, who see this as flagrant disregard for the law and the Houbara Bustard’s fate.

Why do people hunt this bird?

The hunts symbolize the longstanding ancestral tradition of gathering meat using falcons. It was only in the 1970s that it became popular among royals to pursue the Houbara Bustard, specifically. Falconry as a tradition predates the written word, and still exists in more than 60 countries around the world. Its origin in the Middle East dates back to 3500 BC. The birds are closely tied to Bedouin culture: Nomadic civilizations relied heavily on falcons to help them find food in the unforgiving Arabian and Syrian deserts. Nowadays, falconers in the Middle East see the sport as a vital link with this Bedouin past.

Falcon hunting is also used as a tool to teach the virtues of patience and trust. In Saudi Arabia, the hunts are said to instill “al-shareek,” which is Arabic for “partner ethics” of camaraderie, sharing, and taking responsibility. The practice is so revered that in 2010, UNESCO added falconry to its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which characterizes the sport as a culturally significant practice.

Another incentive for the modern-day hunts: The Houbara Bustard’s meat is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities. Permits from the Pakistan’s Foreign Office—selectively awarded to Saudi and Emirati dignitaries—also make it easy for royals to continue enjoying these exclusive hunts.  

What caused the current backlash?

Conservationists grew restive last year, when a similar hunt took place in Balochistan. Even though hunting permits had not been revoked there yet, the event sparked outrage when it was revealed that in just three weeks, 2,100 bustards had been killed. (That’s more than 20 times the quota of 100 birds that are allowed under the permit.) The figure was leaked to the press from the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department, yet the prince went unpunished. The government’s refusal to enforce the quota angered conservationists, who worry that a similarly devastating hunt will be carried out this year, even though the sport is now outlawed in the region.

Why should these birds be protected?

Since lavish hunting trips became popular in the ’70s, populations of the Houbara Bustard have, at some points, been all but decimated in parts of the Persian Gulf. As a result of conservation and specialized breeding programs in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and other nations, the global population has been nurtured back to an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 birds. One of those programs, the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, releases a target number of birds each year to sustain wild stocks for hunters. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature warns that the general population trend is still falling, mainly because of hunting in the bustards’ wintering grounds. The birds are also targeted by trappers in Pakistan and Iran, who illegally ship them to Saudi Arabia, where they’re used to train falcons. Habitat loss across their wintering grounds further compounds the problem. Currently, the IUCN lists the birds as vulnerable, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has placed them on the most sensitive listing, which prohibits any commercial trade of these birds.