Saudi Bustards

We New Zealanders are very concerned about endangered species of flora and fauna. We actually have a government cabinet minister responsible for the environment. I’ve got a feeling we used to have one tasked with its conservation, but I wouldn’t swear to that.
I have to confess, though, we can sometimes get a bit self-righteous and holier-than-thou on the subject, which we really have no right to be. Since Europeans began to arrive in numbers a mere 170 years or so ago we have managed to eradicate at least twenty species, mostly birds. We have also brought many more to the verge of extinction, including four species of sea mammal.
Nevertheless, being aware of its existence is the first step towards solving a problem, and I feel some pride in the programmes our government funds to preserve fascinating birds like the kakapo from following the dodo into oblivion.
Houbara Bustard
getting it on for the ladies
The modern state of Turkey, despite standing on land that has witnessed the passing of innumerable civilisations for millennia, is surprisingly still home to species of birds and animals not much to be met with elsewhere in Europe: the white-tailed eagle, fallow deer, Iranian gazelle and the Mediterranean seal; the Anatolian spiny mouse, the steppe eagle and the pallid harrier; the striped hyena, Indian crested porcupine, northern bald ibis, demoiselle crane, Saker falcon and the Taurus frog. It’s not so long ago, I understand, that dancing bears were to be seen on the streets of Istanbul for the entertainment of visitors. These days, at least among educated urbanites, more enlightened attitudes are in evidence towards the preservation of native flora and fauna.
Currently before a court near the southeastern city of Diyarbakır is the case of two shepherds charged with illegally shooting a rare Anatolian leopard. The brothers claim that the leopard leaped out of a tree and attacked them. If they hadn’t shot it they would have been torn to pieces. The judge, for his part, has expressed scepticism that the scratches sustained by one of the brothers are consistent with his having been savaged by a 90 kg wild cat. If his decision goes against them, the shepherds could be jailed for three to five years.
While you probably have some knowledge of leopards, gazelles and eagles, you may be less familiar with (perhaps even have less sympathy for) spiny mice, Taurus frogs and crested porcupines. Another creature whose existence may come as a surprise to you is the Asian Houbara (Chlamydotis mcqueenii), sometimes known as the McQueen’s or Houbara Bustard.
The Asian houbara, whose natural habitat is the arid steppe or desert, is apparently quite a large bustard, somewhat bigger than its North African bustard cousins. It is, however, severely endangered and the subject of conservation efforts by the International Foundation for Conservation and Development of Wildlife (IFCDW).
Interestingly for New Zealanders, this big bustard has an important characteristic in common with our own flightless, nocturnal parrot, the kakapo. While many birds form bonded pairs for the purpose of mating and raising chicks, both kokako and bustards engage in what is known in ornithological circles as a lek breeding system. What happens here is that males select a spot to stage their performance and proceed to dance, bellow loudly and otherwise make spectacles of themselves while the young ladies stand demurely around and select a partner. One thing naturally leads to another – after which males and females go their separate ways, males, one assumes, happy to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood, and females relieved that they don’t have to spend a lifetime with those noisy arrogant boorish bustards.
Possibly as a result as a result of this male behaviour, the meat of the bustard is considered, particularly in traditional Arab societies, an aphrodisiac. In addition, bustards seem to have a rather evolutionarily unpropitious approach to being hunted. Hunters on camels would surround the birds and approach in slowly decreasing circles. Eschewing the obvious avian escape of flight, the bustard would attempt to conceal itself in the manner immortalised by ostriches, with generally unhappy outcomes for the survival of the species. It’s also possible that they had learnt the futility of flight from the Arab practice of using trained falcons to catch them on the wing – and just wanted to get it all over with quickly.
Prince Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud
in need of a bustard kebab
Whatever the case, the result, as noted above, is that the Asian bustard is a critically endangered species. Its disappearance has been accelerated as wealthy Arabs have graduated from traditional Mohammedan camels to Western 4WD SUVs and state-of-the-art hunting rifles. The poor little bustard is now a rare sight in the Arabian desert, and sheikhs with potency problems are having to travel farther afield in their search for hubaran assistance. Again, as we New Zealanders are aware, poorer countries are often obliged to woo rich neighbours to spend their money in our market-place. In Pakistan hunting permits for bustards are issued and safari tours organised for Arabs from the upper strata of society. Quotas, of course, are stipulated, but not, it seems, stringently policed.
The matter came to my attention in an articlein our local Turkish newspaper. Saudi prince, Fahd bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was reported as having participated in such a hunting safari in the Balochistan region of Pakistan. During the 21-day outing, the royal Saud accounted for 1,977 of the endangered bustards; though Wikipedia records a higher number – 2,100.

Who can know? And who was counting? Maybe His 63 year-old Royal Highness was proud of his achievement, and tweeted the kill as advance warning to the houris in his harem back home . . . ‘Look out, momma! Here I come!’

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