Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

Of Hunters and Hunted (2): Falconry, bird smuggling and wildlife conservation

Fabrizio Foschini 19 min

The cold weather marks the start of the hunting season in many countries across the world. In Afghanistan, despite a hunting ban, this time of year sees the resumption of particular hunting-related activities. One particular group of hunters – raptor birds migrating through the country – become the hunted. Every year, some are caught and sold, often abroad, to be trained to hunt other prey in turn. At this time of year, as well, foreign falconers, notably wealthy sportsmen from the Gulf endowed with special hunting permits, come to western Afghanistan in order to indulge their passion for falconry and hunt their most prized quarry, the houbara bustard – which has also become the objective of a Qatari conservation programme in the country. In this second and concluding instalment of a two-part report on falconry in Afghanistan, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini examines the illegal export of raptors from Afghanistan, and also the hunting of and efforts to conserve the houbara in Farah province. He notes the ambivalent effects of this particular form of foreign intervention.

A flying falcon during hunting training session in the Qatari desert on 15 October 2023. Photo by Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto via AFP.

Part 1 of this report, which traced falconry through poetry and memoirs, can be read here.

From hunting with falcons to hunting falcons

At Kandahar and above Kabul nests the Khorasani falcon
When Aries comes the chicks of the peregrine are born 
And with Taurus you fetch them from the nest
From Khorasan come peregrine falcons who are
Great, healthy and powerful as marine falcons

In the first part of this report, centred on Khushal Khan Khattak’s Baznama, his poetic treatise on falconry from which these lines are taken, we have been referring to falcons in a rather general sense. Some classification will be required here before delving further into contemporary falconry. Raptors employed for falconry must be divided into two main groups, according to both modern Linnaean classification and traditional Arabo-Persian medieval categorisation, besides practical visual recognition when flying. 

Falcons proper (Persian shahinan), that is members of the falconidae family such as the peregrine, saker, gyrfalcon, and even the smaller merlin and hobby, are categorised in Persian as siyahchashm (black-eyed) and can roughly be described as long-winged raptors. 

Hawks (Persian bazan), on the other hand, such as the goshawk and the sparrowhawk, belong to the Accipitridae, which are traditionally labelled zardchashm or gulabchashm (yellow-eyed or rose-eyed) and can be described as short-winged. 

Hunting techniques further set the two groups apart: falcons mainly hunt other birds, climbing above their prey before dropping on them out of the sky in a fast dive. Among these, the peregrine is pre-eminent, the fastest-moving creature on Earth, reaching speeds of 320 km/h. Hawks are more apt at catching prey both in the air and on land in manoeuvred flight through woodland or semi-covered areas. Falcons tear apart their prey, using a beak which has evolveda sharp ‘tooth’, one of the characteristic features of this group. Hawks kill with their talons. 

A man in the market in Khwja Bahauddin holds a female kestrel, a type of falcon famous for hovering motionless watching for its prey, before dropping out of the sky upon it. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP, October 2001.

Both types of raptors can be taken from the nest as chicks and reared and trained until they are able to hunt, or they can be captured as adults. Those who take chicks follow the birds’ reproductive calendar and sites of different species, seeking out the many falcons who nest in rugged mountainous terrain across Afghanistan, notably Badakhshan, Nuristan and Bamyan as well as other areas to the south and north of the Hindu Kush. Nowadays, however, adult falcons captured while migrating are considered superior, as they are already skilled hunters and do not require excessive training.[1]As Khushal Khan writes: Only that who is a Jack-of-all-trades  Ought to try and catch a wild peregrine Better if you take it from the nest ‘Tis a treat then, worth that of a … Continue reading Consequently, their market price is much higher than that of birds taken from their nests and reared by humans. October and November are considered the best months for catching wild birds, especially falcons such as the saker or peregrine, when these migrate from Central Asia and western China to warmer areas, flying through northern and central Afghanistan. 

The opening lines of this section show how modern-day Afghanistan was already considered a primary ground for catching raptors for falconry in Khushal Khan’s time. And if today, falconry practised by Afghans has by and large disappeared, hunting falcons in order to sell them, often on the international market, has increasingly become a profitable business.

A falcon hunter interviewed in Kabul agreed to share with AAN some details of the profession he had inherited from his father. He originally hails from Kunduz province and mostly traps migrating falcons in that area, in the districts of Dasht-e Archi and Khanabad or in neighbouring Darqad in Takhar province.

When we go hunting, prior to hunting we first catch some small birds – we call them sarkheli, badori, torlaki (black tail) or shinlaki (blue tail). We tie snares to their feet and head and to all places where it is possible to put snares on. We sew the eyes of these small birds shut and tie their wings so that they cannot fly away and get lost. They can fly maybe one or two hundred metres and we can easily catch them back. Some people use pigeons as bait, also putting a snare harness on them. When we see falcons and hawks in the air, we throw the birds towards them. They attack them, but they get stuck in the trap and then we catch them. 

Some people also tie the bait birds into a net and when the hunting falcons see them, they attack and also get stuck in the net. They pin the caps of the net into the earth, so the falcons cannot fly away and carry it with them.[2]In desert areas such as in Farah province, hunters told AAN that falcons would be ambushed with nets close to water springs, which are scarce.

Falconry in Afghanistan, like a number of traditional practices, has suffered the consequences of four decades of war, destruction and displacement. Until recently, a quite common sight on Kabul’s streets was men pulling handcarts filled with cages and birds of various kinds for sale, among them, inevitably sparrowhawks or other small raptors. Now, hunting raptors are mostly purchased by foreign buyers and trafficked outside the country. 

Of course, there are exceptions: a number of falconers remain in the country, especially in the eastern region around Jalalabad (read a 2011 report here), where research into the current situation by members of the Pakistan Falconry Association (PFA) between 2014 and 2016 was undertaken. Afghan falconry also still exists in the Shomali plateau north of Kabul, whose residents have a deep-rooted interest in all types of hunting.[3]See this earlier AAN report about a “king of the air” found “bloodied and hanging from a hook in landlocked Afghanistan.”: ‘The ‘Bagram Duck’: Migrant bird killed north of Kabul and … Continue reading Here, when NATO troops were present, Afghan falconers were employed by the US Army to keep rabbits from encroaching on lanes at the Bagram airbase.

Afghan falconer employing his sparrowhawk to remove rabbits from Bagram airlanes, 2010. Copyright FHT. Source:

Falcon hunting and falconry are interconnected activities and often a family affair, passed down from father to son. Some contemporary hunters thus keep up hawking as a hobby, especially with birds they cannot profitably sell on the market. Such was the case with the hunter interviewed by AAN in Kunduz. He had captured two peregrine falcons during the 2022/23 season, the female he sold for a million Pakistani Rupees (around 3,700 USD), while the male he kept for himself for occasional hunting. He said males are not usually sold; as with most raptors, adult females are comparatively larger and more powerful than males (a differential which allows a pair of birds to hunt different prey in the same area) and are therefore more frequently employed in falconry as well as being in higher demand. Hawks are also more likely to be kept or sold in local markets. 

Foreign demand for falcons is driving the market and comes overwhelmingly from the Gulf; falconers there do not employ hawks for hunting, but only and exclusively falcons. So, despite the veneration of the peregrine, the saker and other falcons in Khushal’s treatise and the presence of saker falcons in stories by Rattray and other colonial officers, much of the recent photographic evidence, as well as the author’s personal observations over the past two decades, point to a predominance of accipitridae, ie hawks, in the hands of Afghan falconers. Falcons, on the other hand, are probably not something the average Afghan falconer can afford any more and so those captured or raised inside the country are usually sold to foreign markets.

To highlight the difference this makes, a survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Mazar-e Sharif in November 2007 found that the price of a female saker falcon ranged between 1,000 and 3,000 USD, while that of a sparrowhawk was only around 100 USD. Needless to say, the same falcons, once they are exported, are worth many times that price. In the late 1990s, a female saker falcon was worth between 20,000 and 40,000 USD in Riyadh or Dubai. After a temporary price drop in the early 2000s, more recently, prices were reported to have reached similar or higher figures already at the Pakistani market level, which is usually the retail outlet for Afghan falcons. The final price in the Gulf would be higher still. 

As a consequence of this trade, the saker falcon’s status is endangered across the whole region, as reported already in 2007 by the WCS:

The case of the saker falcon is especially worrying. Biologists from the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) in Abu Dhabi (now Environmental Agency, EAD), mandated to address the impact of falconry on saker falcon populations, have documented a very rapid population decline, particularly on Central Asian breeding grounds, mostly caused by inadequately controlled offtakes for the falconry trade.

Successive Afghan governments from Karzai onwards have tried to tackle the trafficking of raptors (see Tolo News report here), although without much success. Despite several confiscations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf countries over the past two decades that have enabled the return and release of dozens of smuggled birds, the trade has continued unabated (see and by Pajhwok).

The hunting ban announced by the previous Afghan government (and which has been replicated by the Islamic Emirate) has not been enforced with regularity. High-profile Pakistani or Arab traders or their local contractors acquire permits for nest-hunting or trading raptors by government officials; thus, the ban has mainly affected local hunters who cannot afford to secure permits or bribe officials. For some involved in the hunting and rearing of hawks for local markets, these restrictions have forced them to give up their profession, while those making better profits have been able to continue their activities undisturbed.

The insurgency both exacerbated the previous government’s unwillingness to prioritise the fight against bird smuggling and also helped curb Afghan falconry and the raptor trade. The Taleban forbade hunting in areas under their influence in order to reduce the risk of villagers, wandering in remote and mountainous areas on a hunt, chancing upon their hideouts and reporting them to government or NATO forces. Long periods of high-intensity conflict typically have ambivalent effects on fauna as they tend to disrupt people’s hunting activities (read a report on falcon trafficking in Syria and the war’s impact). At the same time, it hinders attempts to protect the environment, launch restoration programmes and combat wildlife smuggling. While war in Afghanistan probably reduced people’s hunting for personal consumption or leisure, it did not stop the lucrative poaching of species in high demand in foreign markets.

The Kunduzi hunter said that, whereas in the past he used to go to Peshawar to sell the falcons he caught, in the last two years, he now goes to Kabul to meet contractors acting as buyers for foreign customers. This may be a result of the difficulties Afghans currently face crossing the Torkham border with Pakistan, but is surely also a sign that the raptor trade has not in any way been disrupted by the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, despite the continuing official ban.

A few short-winged hawks are still employed by the Afghan falconers who still hunt, given they are cheaper to buy and keep, and since their hunting techniques are more suited to the hilly and partially wooded terrain of central and eastern Afghanistan. The more specifically aerial prowess of falcons, such as the peregrine, seems to be better suited to the flat and open expanses of southern and western Afghanistan and, in those regions, it is to the glove of foreign falconers, rather than Afghans that the birds return to. Foreign hunting parties have become a fixture of Afghanistan in the past decades. Come winter, wealthy Arab falconers from the Gulf flock to western provinces such as Farah to fly their favourite falcons – often originally from Afghanistan, but smuggled to the Gulf via Karachi – at their favourite prey, the houbara bustard.

A hunting paradise in Farah

But the bustard, that miracle of the sky
But for its leash it would grab!
Higher than bustard can the falcons fly

From Khushal Khan’s geographical perspective in Afghanistan’s southeast and the Vale of Peshawar, bustards would probably not have been typical birds. Although they were present, they were and still are more common in the steppe expanses from Baluchistan to the north of Afghanistan. However, given his use of the phrase, “miracle of the sky,” the bustard’s flying skills and its value as game for falconry because of the sport it offered were very well known to him. This is further made clear by a hunting calendar he provides in the Baznama, where the bustard is featured from the month of October:

When it’s Virgo there come quails

And at the start of Scorpio white geese

For the bustards you must wait for Libra

This is indeed the time when the first houbara bustards – increasingly referred to by Afghans by their Arabic name ‘houbara’– arrive in Afghanistan.[4]‘Houbara’ is in fact the name of the North African bustard, while the Asiatic bustard in Afghanistan, officially known as the ‘macqueen bustard’, has increasingly been referred to as … Continue reading Houbaras migrate between the northern steppes of Central Asia, such as in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, where they go to find mates and reproduce, and their winter quarters in western Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they stay between October and March. The season between the end of autumn and the early part of winter is also when falconers from the Gulf, who have a real obsession with the houbara bustard, fly to these parts.

There are several reasons why the houbara is such prized game among Gulf Arabs: partly, it is nostalgia for the old times, when houbara hunting during transhumance guaranteed food for Bedouin households, but also due to the unmatched sport offered to falconers by this bird with its size, mimetic plumage, flying skills and peculiar defensive techniques. Despite living partly on the ground, the bustard rises high into the air and spirals to avoid being struck, while reportedly also being able to defend itself by defecating on a pursuing falcon. Even more importantly, houbaras are considered a delicacy in the Gulf. There, the bird’s meat is believed to grant longevity and also, reportedly, to be an aphrodisiac (see this report by wildlife author, Richard Conniff). On a hunting trip, houbaras are often eaten right away, boiled first in order to tenderise the meat and then grilled, with the broth served as a starter.

A houbara bustard in western Farah province, 2023. Photo by AAN.

Due to intensive hunting, houbaras have become very rare in the Arabian Peninsula read a report here) and, after attempts at importing live birds captured elsewhere, Gulf hunters started to explore new hunting grounds, notably western Afghanistan.[5]The houbara does not normally constitute the falcon’s typical prey, so they must be specifically trained to hunt them with live animals.

The presence of hunting parties from the Arab Gulf in Afghanistan dates back to the mid-1990s and has been no secret since Steve Coll, in his book Ghost Wars, wrote about an episode when the US were about to bomb a group, believing Bin Laden to be among them.[6]AAN has in the past written about the bird and its ‘Arab connection’: ‘Bird Bomber: Police kill ‘dangerous’ houbara bustard’. Under the Islamic Republic, Gulf hunters were sometimes even invited by government officials, in spite of the hunting ban (reported by Pajhwok here) and were able to secure permits to hunt in Afghanistan. 

The current Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) also put forward a national hunting ban in November 2022. In some provinces, such as Farah, where hunting has evidently become of national strategic significance, the ban was imposed through other means. The local minister of Haj and Religious Affairs asked residents through sermons in mosques to stop hunting rare birds (see this Tolo report). The ban occurred just in time to stop the impending hunting season and the effects of its enforcement soon followed: Afghan media reported that a number of local hunters were arrested in Anardara and Khak-e Safed districts between the end of December 2022 and end of January 2023. 

However, shortly after this, and in an even more timely fashion for the houbara season, the possibility for foreigners to hunt in Afghanistan became regulated through a series of contracts tendered by the Ministry of Culture and Information at a total of 42 million USD (ToloNew report here). Though the announcement alluded to different contracts, the main beneficiary is certainly Al-Gharrafa, a Qatari organisation headed by prominent businessman Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani.

The Al-Gharrafa Foundation began its activities in Afghanistan (or at least was registered as an NGO in Kabul) on 23 April 2014, although it had already explored possible areas of interest (see an earlier Pajhwok report here). Despite having a central office in Kabul (where its main project has been the building of a residential project for needy people, Shahrak-e Qatar in PD5 on land given to it by the Republic in exchange for investment by Qatar), its main focus has been on Farah province.

The first priority of the foundation was indeed a houbara conservation project, which started in 2014 with the building of a breeding farm about 15 km south of Farah city. Around one hundred houbaras were imported from Qatar and it was planned that 1,300 would be raised in the period up to 2019. By 2016, they had reached 855 birds and began releasing them in Dasht-e Chakerta, to the west of Farah city. According to Al-Gharrafa’s website, 470 were released in 2017 and around 400 in each of the following years (see also Afghan media reporting). According to an employee of Al-Gharrafa interviewed by AAN, to this day, around 2,800 houbaras, both male and female, have been released. Al-Gharrafa has also developed a date palm farm, some of the produce of which is given to locals as alms, and is also engaged in other charitable construction projects, such as building the airport of Farah, the local Friday Mosque and some educational facilities.

Qatari interest in Farah clearly lies in falconry, although a rationale for working there could could be found in need – although one of the largest Afghan provinces, it has seen some of the lowest aid and investment from donors. Moreover, given the vast expanses of desert ravaged by an ‘unstoppable’ wind, there is also a lack of alternatives to invest in.

Al-Gharrafa is not new to agreements on hunting permits. During the Republic in 2016, it obtained the right to hunt 30 per cent of the birds it would release each year (read a Pajhwok report from that time).

Hafez Burhanuddin, Director of the Environment Protection Department of Farah, told AAN that: 

Every year, the Arabs come here in Jadi (December-January), Dalw (January-February) and Hut (February-March). Some years, they stay here for one month, some years for 15 days, but it’s always according to the policy and laws of the government. The Emirate has organised that this can be five months each year and that every time they come here, the Emirate is responsible for their security. This year and the past one, the Arabs have travelled here for three months.… They go about their business and spend their time here. All their activities are arranged with the central government. Then Kabul tells us and we execute what it is told to us. 

The Arabs hunt with the falcons, they hunt the houbara and when they’re on a safari, they kill two or four houbara each day and eat them. They don’t hunt, except with the falcons and it must be said that they do not hunt the indigenous birds of Farah, except the houbara. When they come to Farah, they are given some 50 guards and moreover, they’re accompanied by drivers and some other local helpers, and these people are assigned to them by the Ministry of Interior.

Sheikh Ali himself comes every year for hunting trips, followed by guests and customers. According to local hunters and drivers who have served as guides to these parties, besides Dasht-e Chakerta, where Al-Gharrafa has a hosting facility and an additional preserve with other animals such as ostriches and wild goats, the Arabs mainly head to the westernmost districts of Farah and stay in mobile camps in Anardara and Lash wa Juwayn on Iran’s border, where houbaras are said to concentrate.

Despite some initial suspicion by locals as to the Qataris’ ‘real objective’ (read reports written during the Republic by ToloNews here and Killid here), as well as unease by some members of Farah’s civil society over the lack of accountability of hunting and aid alike – some locals interviewed complained about the big fluctuation in the level of charitable support and environmental impact from year to year – Al-Gharrafa’s activities certainly constitute a much-needed boost for Farah’s economy. The Arabs employ around 40 locals on the houbara farm (guards, veterinarians and the keepers). When hunting, they hire drivers, guides and other attendants and buy provisions and fuel, spending as much as 20 lakh AFS (27,000 USD) per day. 

Al-Gharrafa’s interest in Farah also seems to have brought the attention of central government to the province: as reported by local officials to AAN, for the past two years since the re-establishment of the IEA and in contrast to other provincial administrations, where very little money has been distributed by the central government, the governor of Farah province has received a yearly sum of 500,000 USD to be spent on relevant projects. 

Everybody interviewed by AAN seemed to agree that Qataris are not interested in buying local falcons in Farah. Visiting Arabs bring their own falcons and the only falcons on the farm in Farah are elderly specimens that cannot be released into the wild, something the foundation has often done with retrieved smuggled raptors. Similarly, although the mountainous areas of Farah, such as Kuh-e Sharafat in central Farah and Kuha-ye Saji in Khak-e Safed district, are still inhabited by falcons, nobody in the province hunts them. According to two local hunters interviewed by AAN, professional dealers from Helmand or Herat still operate, selling the birds on to Pakistani contractors.

Altogether, the IEA’s ban on hunting reinforces efforts made by the previous government, although it is probably better able to enforce the ban, even though at this time many impoverished Afghans might have turned to hunting to boost their meagre incomes. Such a short-term solution to economic woes would irrevocably deplete Afghanistan’s remaining wildlife reserves. One of the hunters from Farah interviewed by AAN, who in past years hunted quails, partridges and rabbits to sell in the city for their meat, said that for the past two years the hunt had not been good and that animals had become few and far between because of intensive hunting. He said the Taleban ban had only spurred him on further to give up his profession, at least temporarily.

Nonetheless, the hunting ban exposes the unfair relationship between Afghan citizens and wealthy foreigners, as the latter are permitted to hunt, even if only for leisure, in exchange for economic and political support.

Falconry and environmental conservation: concerns from which the Afghans are excluded?

Hunting with falcons? You need to have money
Or neither money nor needs

Any impression that the presence of an organisation such as Al-Gharrafa in a remote place such as Farah is a bizarre eccentricity, the whim of a sheikh indulging in his private pastime, needs to be dispelled. Not only, as mentioned, is Al-Gharrafa’s engagement with Farah’s wildlife a part of the organisation’s portfolio in Afghanistan, the Qatari organization is far from being an exception in the Gulf landscape.

It can be reductive to describe houbara hunting by Gulf Arab falconers as simply an aristocratic pastime practised by a powerful minority of foreigners in a poor country which finds itself in a position of dependency. The cultural value of falconry as a tradition has been widely explored and is charged with social and even environmental significance in Gulf countries. In the words of the director general of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC): “Falconry remains, for many people, intrinsically linked to… tying people together with wildlife and enforcing conservation programmes.” In recent times, however, the effects of this ancient tradition – coupled with modern technologies such as off-road vehicles and GPS – have been detrimental to the animal and bird species involved. 

Arab Gulf countries began efforts to protect and repopulate bustards at home in the 1980s, following which, programmes were launched to support bustard populations abroad as well. The International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC), a United Arab Emirates-led effort, was founded in 2006 and established houbara farms and other conservation projects in Morocco and Kazakhstan. Saudi Arabia soon sponsored a centre in Morocco as well. Qatar seems to have decided that Afghanistan could be the place to test its mettle in the competition for the conservation and hunt of bustards and, indeed, it seems to have found in it the perfect terrain for regaining any ground it might have lost with respect to its neighbours. A similar project sponsored by the UAE centred on curbing smuggling and establishing a research farm, appeared in northern Balkh province in 2013 (see this report by Radio Azadi). 

The long-term Qatari engagement as a potential mediator during the Afghan conflict and its solid relationship with the Taleban has offered an unrivalled entry point for cooperation with the IEA, even on these types of projects (see ToloNews report). If nothing else, Afghanistan probably offers Qataris less of the bureaucratic hassle involved in organising falconry safaris abroad (read here about a diplomatic incident caused by the death of the Qatari Emir’s falcons at customs in Kazakhstan).

This sort of ‘sporting’ competition between Gulf countries to launch conservation programmes and to secure and expand hunting preserves and opportunities across the region include elements of ruling family or national prestige, and has become an established part of the diplomatic game played by Gulf countries. When the Pakistani Supreme Court sought to ban houbara hunting in 2015, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked it to reconsider because of the potential fallout with Gulf states, key investors in the country. The ban was revokedthe following year, as reported by Arab News. When it comes to Afghanistan, that Afghans become mere gamekeepers for wealthy sheikhs may not be the main problem – such a role would hardly rank even low down among the different ways in which foreigners have sought to use Afghans as pawns for their own geopolitical struggles in recent centuries. Still, the scenario is controversial.

Part of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation’s mission states that: “Through restoring sustainable wild populations of houbara, IFHC will secure the continuation of traditional Arabian falconry for future generations.” The proportion of birds bred and released into the wild that are then hunted in Farah seem to satisfy the need for the numbers of houbara in that province to slowly but steadily increase and the risk of their extinction be avoided. However, given the VIP status of the hunters, it is unclear how the number of kills is monitored and, should quotas be introduced, who would exercise control over them. With no consistent reporting on the issue from within Afghanistan, recurrent scandals in neighbouring Pakistan regarding the excessive killing of houbara by the occasional irresponsible Arab hunter do not help dispel these concerns (as reported here).

Whatever becomes of the fine balance between hunting and conservation, it is clear that programmes such as those enacted by Al-Gharrafa in Farah represent interests external to Afghanistan and will always tend to focus and orient their activities to satisfy those interests in the absence of any strong partnership or supervision by the Afghans themselves. It is in Afghanistan’s interests for civil society and the authorities at all levels to be more engaged when it comes to planning and implementing initiatives for the conservation of the country’s natural environment. It may seem marginal to suggest this at a time when so many Afghans are more concerned with survival, but as shown by increasing environmental problems affecting human life, efforts at conservation and restoration and critical rethinking about the use of natural resources are going to be key for a sustainable future, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Wildlife repopulation programmes driven by hunting, as seen only too often in Europe in the recent past, can tend to overlook the need for extreme care, both by boosting the target species to the detriment of competitors or the natural environment, or when releasing into the wild animals as the programme’s targets which are not indigenous. Western Afghanistan, for example, has traditionally seen the presence of two species of gazelle, the goitered gazelle and the chinkara or Indian gazelle. The introduction by Al-Gharrafa in 2015 of 33 specimens of gazelle from Qatar, as it reported here, which in a matter of years multiplied to well over one hundred, might become problematic in the future. They are most likely Arabian sand gazelles, once considered a sub-species of the goitered gazelle but since 2011 recognised as a separate species.[7]Questions are raised also by the presence of ‘alien’ ostriches in Al-Gharrafa farms. However, it has not been possible for the author to ascertain what, exactly, they are meant for, whether for … Continue reading)

Khushal Khan Khattak may be a model for modern-day Afghanistan here. Notwithstanding the hard times he was facing, he managed to leave his descendants with a lasting record of his love of falconry and in the process elevate himself from the position of courtier to that of independent leader. So too could any Afghan government strive to pay attention to the management of its natural resources and environment – not simply for the leisure and health of the Afghan people, but for future generations, and to uphold the country’s dignity.

If the decline of an ancient tradition such as falconry is considered a ‘minor loss’ against the backdrop of over four decades of war, the disappearance of a rich and often unique natural life cannot be. Afghanistan’s wildlife cannot wait for Afghans to have lots of money and no other priorities. Help and funding from the outside, such as that provided by Qatar in Farah province, can play a pioneering role in preserving and even restoring parts of the country’s environment. Yet, for the best results, it should be done within the framework of a comprehensive national strategy for the preservation of wildlife and Afghanistan’s natural resources.

Edited by Emilie Cavendish and Kate Clark


1 As Khushal Khan writes:

Only that who is a Jack-of-all-trades 

Ought to try and catch a wild peregrine

Better if you take it from the nest

‘Tis a treat then, worth that of a court

Strangely enough, Khushal Khan seemed to prefer birds taken from the nest to those captured as adults. However, the modern hunters’ preference for birds captured as adults may also point to a decline in expertise in falcon training and the search for faster and better results over the care and passion for rearing one’s own birds.

2 In desert areas such as in Farah province, hunters told AAN that falcons would be ambushed with nets close to water springs, which are scarce.
3 See this earlier AAN report about a “king of the air” found “bloodied and hanging from a hook in landlocked Afghanistan.”: ‘The ‘Bagram Duck’: Migrant bird killed north of Kabul and offered as game’.
4 ‘Houbara’ is in fact the name of the North African bustard, while the Asiatic bustard in Afghanistan, officially known as the ‘macqueen bustard’, has increasingly been referred to as ‘houbara’ given the importance that Arabs attach to the bird. Asiatic bustards are also known as ‘mish morgh’ in Persian, ‘khani’ in Pashto and, according to AAN sources, in Farah they are also referred to as ‘taq daro’, which actually resembles the name given to the great Indian bustard in parts of the Punjab.
5 The houbara does not normally constitute the falcon’s typical prey, so they must be specifically trained to hunt them with live animals.
6 AAN has in the past written about the bird and its ‘Arab connection’: ‘Bird Bomber: Police kill ‘dangerous’ houbara bustard’.
7 Questions are raised also by the presence of ‘alien’ ostriches in Al-Gharrafa farms. However, it has not been possible for the author to ascertain what, exactly, they are meant for, whether for husbandry or hunting (and thus likely to be released into the wild.


falconry falcons houbara bustard Qatari conservation programme


Fabrizio Foschini

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