Sultans, Sheikhs, and the Houbara Bustard: Politics and Polarity in Conservation – Part 1.

Houbara Bustard (photo by Jim Bleak)

Houbara Bustard (photo by Jim Bleak)

I am always amazed about the polarity seen in conservation practices as they range across nations, cultures, and even individuals. One country might be “saving” a species, decimating it, or both. Recent news articles depict these seemingly contradictory actions.

For instance, a recent account reported that the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum released 170 captive-bred Asian Houbara bustards at the Al Maha desert sanctuary in the emirate.   Across the Gulf of Oman in Pakistan, humans are hunting this species, whose flesh is considered an aphrodisiac. “Sheikhs and princes..flock to Pakistan each year to hunt the houbara bustard bird with falcons, arriving by private charter jet from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Their wildly extravagant parties are allotted private hunting grounds in Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab provinces by the Pakistani government, which is scheduled to receive 222 million dollars in aid this financial year from Saudi Arabia.”
Yet Pakistan and Saudi Arabia also protect this species. “A major conservation and breeding project is based near Agadir, Morocco and Rahim Yar Khan in Pakistan. The International Foundation for Conservation and Development of Wildlife is a not-for-profit foundation funded by Saudi crown prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. The project breeds Houbaras using artificial insemination, and the offspring are released to the wild.”

It’s difficult to make sense of our own species sometimes, and hence to come up with regional conservation strategies that transcend political and class boundaries. I believe it can be done. Indeed, it must be for the sake of all life. One approach is to see conflict in terms of actions, and not in values. Each of the players impacting the bustards value their relationship to the birds – in what exact ways I cannot say for I have not studied the ethno-ornithological aspects of these cultures and these species. Whatever the specifics are, if we seek to understand how people value their birds, and how their values impact behavior, and do so without any judgment of the worth of the human, we may indeed find a way to empower transnational conservation practices through our shared appreciation of these birds, who are not inglorious bustards any more than we humans are inglorious __________.