Poor bustard – doesn’t stand a chance


The meat of the Houbara Bustard is reportedly so tough and stringy, it sticks to the teeth. So why would anyone want to eat it, when excellent meat and chicken are easily available? Well, the Arabs do because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties. Myth or not, the hunt provides more excitement than pills from pharmaceutical companies.

For the Bedouin whose unexciting diet consisted of dates, locusts and camel milk, the occasional hares, small birds and bustard provided the only solid protein. They however captured only a few at a time, not indulge in an orgy of killing, which today has endangered the species across their once vast range that swept across North Africa, the Middle East, western and Central Asia, and China. Estimated global population today is merely 110,000, most of them in Pakistan.


So hunters come here where politicians and leaders have always been generous with what doesn’t belong to them. – Although the British banned houbara hunting in South Asia early the last century and Pakistan imposed a ‘permanent’ ban in 1972. Until then Arabs hunted in Iran and Afghanistan; but the Iranis cooled towards them, and Afghanistan would be more dangerous for them than for the birds.

The Arabs capture bustards only with falcons. That’s style for you. — A mark of manhood, elegantly displaying a falcon on one’s gloved hand, and then releasing it at a designated moment, to have it tear into a gentle, defenceless bird. It’s the sickening equivalent of the British fox-hunt, complete with ‘hunters’ decked out in scarlet jackets on horseback, bugles and a small army of bloodhounds which similarly chase and rip apart a poor, harmless, helpless hare that many kids would prefer as a pet. Admittedly, our feudal penchant for fighter cocks or dogs gouging out opponents’ eyes, is as bad.

Now the poor Bedouins barely get to eat bustards, as it would take away from the self-exalted princelings. It’s made falconry big business. Bred in captivity, they’re trained and sold for between $5,000 and $80,000. — A great help as oil sheiks often have difficulty finding ways blowing excess money.

In 1999, the first president of the UAE set up the International Fund for Houbara Conservation and banned all hunting – not out of pity for the poor bustard, but to enable their numbers to recover …. so that some day they can be hunted again!

Abu Dhabi has started a bustard breeding programme and boasts the Abu Dhabi Falconry Hospital whose state-of-the-art equipment and services humans would envy. Getting into vicious spats with other falcons, accidentally crashing into vehicles or their own reflections in mirror-faced buildings at 200 mph, would leave any falcon minus a few feathers and bones out of place. But they are as sickly as humans with similar diseases — tapeworms, parasites, E. coli, fungal infections, etc.

International bird conservation societies release a wealth of information, but who reads or cares? Officials say royal hunters make off with some 6000 birds each time — about one-fourth of the local population.

Quite a song-and-dance is involved in 10-15 day hunting trips, according to a local driver paid so highly for his exceptional driving skills in the desert that he didn’t have to work until the next season. That’s small change considering each trip costs between 10-20 million dollars. The expeditions come with a caravan of special container vehicles carrying fancy tents, carpets, special food, water and drink, and every comfort and luxury accustomed to, along with hundreds of servants to serve hand and foot, and tracking devices installed on both the specially-tooled Range Rovers as well as the bustards feet.

The Foreign Office maintains that permission (although not the people’s) was given out of goodwill, not financial benefits. And why not? Shouldn’t we get a percentage of that $20 million-per-trip considering we’re in hock with the IMF, and bleeding our people white? Or say no because it’s inhuman and undemocratic? It’s also said Arabs can’t be annoyed since they spend on ‘development’ projects. Left unsaid is that the Gulf is the playground for our elite, a secret meeting ground for politicians, and take-off pad to greener pastures abroad.

As for the provincial fuss about the Federal government issuing permits, when has any government objected to any Arab activity in the past? Over twenty years ago when a Pakistani newspaper expressed outrage, that day’s publication was banned in the Gulf. Even earlier, when women activists turned up at a Gulf consulate to protest against the inhuman use of ‘camel kids’, the consul sent for the police and had them evicted. Our laws don’t apply to Arabs … any more than highly-privileged Pakis. And now that Pakistani ‘royalty’ marries into Arab royalty, how can one say no to the Arab brethren of one’s in-laws?

The writer is Najma Sadeque is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.


  1. Indeed it is part of bedouin tradition but taking houbara in such large numbers is undesirable. The comforts and equipment employed in their hunt has earned criticism. Please note that recent number of humans killed annually is greater than number of houbara taken by
    beduins. Ban on use of vehicles will not only make hunting more thrilling but shall reduce the threat of extinction. Love nature and reap your share from it.

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