Context & Culture

Bird Bomber: Police kill ‘dangerous’ houbara bustard (amended)


The unfortunate, and unexploded, houbara, mistaken for a 'Taleban operative'. Photo: Khaama Press

The unfortunate, and unexploded, houbara, mistaken for a 'Taleban operative'. Photo: Khaama Press

Police in Faryab have shot a wild bird which had an antenna attached to it, fearing it had been sent by the Taleban to target them. They said it exploded, scattering suspicious bits of metal. However, the bits of metal included an ID tag with a telephone number and email address and claims of it ‘exploding’ were belied by pictures of the bird’s body, clearly intact. AAN’s Kate Clark has managed to trace the bird, a male migrating houbara bustard, which had been bred in a wildlife project in Uzbekistan and was indeed carrying a GPS tracker, but not, said one of the scientists, explosives. Kate also reports how the rare bustard has appeared in Afghan news before – as Osama Bin Laden joined an Arab hunting party in Helmand in 1998.

Amendment: a wildlife scientist working in the region got in touch with AAN concerning the bustard’s approaching humans. It seems it might have thought the policeman was its dad: see the last two (new) paragraphs at the end of the dispatch.

 

News of the ‘bird bomber’ was first reported by Khaama Press which described how police had seen a “suspicious bird” flying over their checkpoint on the Faryab-Jawzjan highway in Shirin Tagab district:

Afghan police target the bird by sniper soon after identify it as a bomber and explode a few meters a way above the police chick [sic] point. It is not clear yet who had plan to use this bird as a bomber against afghan police but Faryab province is one of those area in northern Afghanistan which is recently wetness [sic] of Taliban and Al-Qaida activities. But the incident has alarmed military chiefs concerned that the Taliban are now using desperate methods to attack occupying forces.

It was one thing for rural policemen to suspect the bird – and perhaps natural for them to link something unusual to the evil intentions of the Taleban – but something else for the national and, indeed, international press to swallow the story as given. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, people watch wildlife programmes, some using film from cameras on migrating birds. Yet, the story gained only traction, details and certainty in the re-telling, becoming, by the time it reached The Daily Mail, a British newspaper serving a nation of bird-lovers for example, unquestionably, a Taleban suicide bird bomber:

Afghan police shot dead a bird which had been equipped by the Taliban with an explosive pouch, GPS tracker and detonator. Alert officers spotted the suspicious bird in the Faryab province in the north of the country, near the border with Turkmenistan. The bird had several wires protruding from its feathers, a mobile phone detonator and a specially designed ‘suicide vest’.

Migrating birds of all sorts tend to get shot in Afghanistan, as an addition to local diet or simply for sport (as we have reported before, after a dead seagull was offered to us in Shomali as a ‘very tasty’ type of duck). This time, the bird was a magnificent houbara bustard, from its Asian subspecies, Chlamydotis macqueenii, also known as MacQueen’s bustard, 60 centimetres long and with a wingspan of almost a metre and a half. “It is a semi-arid desert specialist and long distance migrant,” Dr Paul Dolman (2), a conservationist from the University of East Anglia in Britain, told AAN. “They can survive in harsh desert conditions as they are adapted to survive in the hot summer temperatures, highly cryptic and beautifully camouflaged.”

There are a number of projects in Central Asia (see also here) which observe houbaras, including those those which use GPS trackers to monitor individual birds as they fly as far as 2000 kilometres from their summer breeding grounds on the steppes between western Kazakhstan and Mongolia to the birds’ wintering grounds in the Middle East and south-central Asia and back again in the spring. Scientists who tracked more than one hundred birds over 15 years (and who are allied to the group who put the GPS on the bird killed in Faryab – more of which later) have found:

Houbara tended to avoid major physical obstacles such as large water bodies or high mountains, preferring long detours inland and at low altitudes… This strategy is common to many bird species that exclusively use flapping flight during migration. Moreover, houbara probably still make use of their historical immigration routes, as observed in other bird species. Of African origin, they are thought to have colonized central Asian habitats at the end of the last ice age and have probably partly inherited their migration routes from the colonization process that progressed north from Arabia and Iran, bounded by the Caspian Sea to the West and the Hindu Kush and Pamir to the East.

The houbara is on the ‘Red List’ of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (see the map of the houbara’s range here) as a ‘vulnerable’ species, in rapid decline. (1) The IUCN’s description of the bird is enthralling:

Males attract their mates with an extravagant courtship display which they perform at the same site each year. The display begins with a period of strutting and culminates with the male retracting his head within an ornamental shield of erected neck feathers and then running at speed in either a straight or curved line. The display is often accompanied by a series of subsonic booming calls.

The houbara and Bin Laden

The houbara should be familiar to Afghans with a sense of history: this was the bird which wealthy Arabs from the United Arab Emirates used to come to hunt in the 1990s, both in Helmand and Pakistani Baluchistan, hosted by Pakistani politicians. Steve Coll in “Ghost Wars” has described how the CIA almost decided to launch an air strike on a hunting party which they believed included Osama Bin Laden in February 1999; it pulled back after the sheikhs turned out to be Emirati royals.

Despite the species’ vulnerability, the hunting continues. Just this week, the Sindh High Court heard how ‘special hunting permits’ had been given to Arab dignitaries despite the fact that hunting houbaras is illegal. The Pakistani daily Express Tribune reported the allegations, that “local influential persons, in collusion with the officials, allowed hunting to the Arab dignitaries, who pay huge money in return.” The federal government argued in court that there was a legal exemption for licenses for “foreign dignitaries, heads of Gulf States and members of royal families.” The court has ordered the Pakistani foreign ministry to submit its documentation regarding the licenses.

It is not just a Pakistani issue. In 2008, several Arab and Afghan hunters were reported kidnapped by a local Taleban commander in Farah for ransom and, in January 2014, Tolo News broadcast footage of what it said were “up to 160 foreigners consisting of Arab, Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi nationals including a Qatari trade minister” who were illegally hunting in western Afghanistan. Tolo reported they were the guests of former Herat governor and strongman Ismail Khan (also energy and water minister under President Karzai and vice-presidential candidate of Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf). It said the hunters had been provided with dozens of police guards and an invitation letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The reason why issuing hunting permits is so lucrative for those who happen to host migrating houbara is that in the Arabian peninsular, one of their main wintering grounds, hunting the birds with falcons is such a popular and ‘noble’ tradition that there are now very few birds left. Mass hunting and environmental degradation has meant the falconers now look elsewhere to hunt the birds. As the IUCN’s Red List reports:

The principal threat is from hunting (primarily using falconry), largely but not exclusively on the species’ wintering grounds… Large numbers are also trapped, mainly in Pakistan and Iran, and shipped to Arabia for use in the training of falcons.

Tracking the birds

The houbara, then, is both beautiful and a prized game bird and there are funds, therefore, for tracking and conservation, and for breeding captive birds for release for hunters. The domain name on the tag of the bird shot in Faryab can clearly be seen on this video. It is registered to an Emirati company, Reneco & HLD (Houbara Lab Design) whose website gives few details of what it does, except to say that, with “20 years of commitment to houbara captive breeding and conservation,” it has managed to preserve the “tradition of Arab falconry” which had been endangered by “the drastic decline of the houbara bustard populations.” The company “offers complete consultancy services in relation to management of houbara bustard captive-breading projects.”

When AAN emailed the contact on the ‘bird bomber’s’ tag, we heard back from Adeline Cadet, operations manager for ECCH (the Emirates Center for Conservation of Houbara) which looks to be a scientific-minded NGO providing support to Reneco’s large ‘game-keeping’ operation, which, in turn, is part of a whole panoply of inter-connected Emirati groups which variously monitor, conserve, and breed birds for hunting. (2) Cadet wrote:

This bird killed by Afghani police is part of a captive breeding program managed by the NGO ECCH based in the republic of Uzbekistan. This bird is a male that was bred during the season 2014 and was released on the 15th September 2014 near the city of Navoi in Uzbekistan. The bird was equipped with a GPS-PTT transmitter, ID 140808 from Microwave Telemetry, in order to monitor its movement as part of a scientific program studying the migration of the houbara bustard species. For information, the houbara male is about 2 kg [4.4 lbs], the GPS – transmitter is about 30g.

She added: “Looking at videos and pictures, anyone can find out that this bird did not experience a ‘considerable explosion’.”

After publishing, this, AAN heard from a scientist working in the region with the Wildlife Conservation Society who pointed out that, according to press reports, it appeared the bird had been shot near a road and in the vicinity of human beings. “This is completely abnormal behaviour for a free-ranging houbara bustard,” she said, “unless it has been bred in captivity and imprinted to some extent to human beings, which seems to have been the case here.” Imprinting is when a newly hatched bird – particularly, ducks, geese, grouse and bustards – recognise the first, large, moving object they see as their ‘parent.’ “Studying the migration pattern of an imprinted bird,” said the scientist, “seems to me seriously flawed from a scientific point of view. In the present case, it was probably more about studying the survival after release of a captive-bred specimen.” Paul Dolman of the University of East Anglia had also earlier told AAN that, “Limited captive breeding may be useful to support wild populations and to reduce impacts of hunting, but it is important to know whether released birds behave and migrate like wild birds.” In this case, it would seem the bird was behaving unnaturally – which would partly explain why the policemen got nervous. Its behaviour also raises questions, however, about the impact of captive breeding and release programmes on the houbara bustard population.

 

(1) The Red List reports:

This newly split species is subject to considerable over-exploitation and declines have been estimated in a large proportion of its total population, thus globally it is estimated and projected to be in rapid population decline over three generations, starting in the past and continuing into the future. However, rates of population decline may be very rapid, and if hunting pressure is not reduced the species could soon warrant uplisting to a higher threat category. Conversely, if on-going reintroduction and reinforcement strategies succeed in stabilising the population, future downlisting to a lower threat category may be justified.

(2) He added:

The University of East Anglia is carrying out research on the species in collaboration with BirdLife International, and the Emirates Bird Breeding Centre for Conservation, to support it’s conservation and sustainable management, and help ensure a future for the species. We are studying the ecology of wild houbara in Uzbekistan. Limited captive breeding may be useful to support wild populations and to reduce impacts of hunting, but it is important to know whether released birds behave and migrate like wild birds. So we, and other organisations such as ECCH who also work in Uzbekistan, are using satellite transmitters to follow the migration and fate of migrating birds.

(3) An online biography of one of the scientists working for Reneco, gives an idea of some of the organisational relationships:

Yves Hingrat is the Research Manager of the Ecology and Conservation Department at the head quarter of Reneco Wildlife Consultants LLC, a private company providing design and management services for Houbara bustard conservation projects. Under the umbrella of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC), Reneco is currently managing the Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation (ECWP) in Morocco, the National Avian Research Center (NARC), the Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Center (SKHBC) in Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Khalifa Houbara Breeding Center in Kazakhstan. Reneco is also managing the Emirates Center for the Conservation of Houbara (ECCH), in Uzbekistan, sponsored by the Private Office of the Ruler of Dubai. Prior to joining Reneco in Abu Dhabi in 2010, Yves spent 10 years at Missour – Morocco, where he completed his Ph.D. on the Ecology of the Houbara bustard, and then took in 2005 the position of Fieldwork and Research Coordinator at the Emirates Centre for Wildlife Propagation (ECWP).

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture