Hunting houbara: Qatari kidnapping casts spotlight on ‘sport of kings’
DOHA // Every year the houbara bustard, a rare desert bird whose meat is prized, migrates from Central Asia to the far reaches of Iraq and Pakistan in search of a mild climate and a place to breed.
Its arrival sets off another migration – as scores of wealthy men descend on Iraq to hunt the bird with trained falcons through the winter months.
But the kidnapping of 26 Qataris in December in the Iraqi desert while hunting has highlighted the risks of pursuing the “sport of kings” at a time of heightened regional turmoil.
No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which happened in a region dominated by militia.
But what is clear is the immense wealth of Qatar and the Doha government’s past successes in freeing prisoners in war zones has made its own citizens prey to those seeking to raise money.
“The kidnapping of the Qatari hunters dealt a painful blow to the reputation of all the southern areas of Iraq,” said Abdul Rahman Hammoud, chief of the Iraqi Hunters Association in Samawa, where the Qataris were kidnapped.
“We are a tribal community and … hunters are our guests. After the abduction, not a single hunter from the Gulf is coming to Iraq anymore, fearing from being kidnapped. It will take a long time to repair the damage and convince … hunters to resume their Iraq trips,” he said.
It is perhaps the world’s most elaborate blood sport – cargo planes fly tents, luxury jeeps, and falcons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into custom-built desert airstrips.
Mega-rich owners often keep their falcons in vast air-conditioned rooms and free-flying aviaries, and use helium-filled balloons and drones to train them at higher altitudes.
Local communities can benefit from the hobby, which has for decades seen the rich channel cash – via hunting permit fees and jobs – into remote corners of the Middle East and beyond.
To curry favour with local communities whose land they descend upon to pursue prey, the hunters have also built roads, schools and mosques in places like Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Afghanistan’s Helmand, while residents also benefit from the international-standard airstrips that can spring up.
New four-wheel drive vehicles brought in for the hunting season are left behind as gifts for local leaders.
But critics say that hunting with falcons is a reckless hobby that threatens the houbara, a dwindling species, and funnels money into areas controlled by militias.
The tradition of falconry is thought to date back thousands of years, and for centuries nomad hunters relied on falcons.
But rapid urbanisation and population growth swallowed the desert breeding grounds and habitats of falcons and their prey.
In the 1960s, falconers began to extend their hunting grounds into Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as such countries as Azerbaijan, Mauritania and Morocco, to hunt in areas that cover thousands of square miles.
“It is dangerous,” said Mohammed Al Khater, a student at Qatar University who trains and breeds falcons in his spare time. “The hunters fly into hotspots because it’s where you find the most prey. It’s a risk – but then, it’s their passion.”
But the hunts have proved divisive.
The global houbara population is estimated at between 79,000 and 97,000, according to BirdLife International, which lists the bird as “vulnerable”. It says the population has declined by a third or more over the past 20 years due to hunting and habitat loss.
A ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year banning hunting of the houbara – after complaints from conservationists that the bird was at risk of extinction – was overturned last month.
One hunter and his entourage killed 2,100 houbara over 21 days during a hunt in 2014, according to an official report leaked to Pakistani news media.
Hunters say they breed houbara to replace those they kill and complain that the practice is being unnecessarily politicised.
Farooq Al-Elji, a falconer who works for the Al Gannas Society, a Qatari association of hunters, defended the practice.
“These people are falconers, you cannot take that away from them,” he said.
In the wake of the kidnappings, Colonel Mahmoud Abbas at Iraq’s interior ministry said Gulf citizens would no longer be able to secure visas “until further notice”.
Updated: February 10, 2016 04:00 AM