SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Winter's come to Pakistan and its brought with it some unexpected complications. NPR's Philip Reeves sent us this postcard from Islamabad about an unusual seasonal controversy.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Winter is creeping down from the Himalayan Mountains. The skies are cloudless, a bright blue. The air is as refreshing as champagne. This is the season for swaddling yourself in a big woolen shawl. It's also the season in Pakistan when you try not to let the bustards get you down. I mean the Houbara bustard. It's a bird about half the size of a turkey, but with the same rotten luck. Look up the bustard on the Internet, you'll find it a very likable bird. Male bustards attract their partners as men do, by strutting around, puffing themselves up and aimlessly darting about at high speed. Every winter the Houbara bustard makes the same mistake - it flies here.
They arrive in Pakistan by the thousand from Central Asia. As icy temperatures set in there, bustards head south to warm themselves up on the deserts and plains that roll down to the Arabian Sea. Every winter though, others also fly in here, by private jet. Arabs began hunting bustards thousands of years ago and never stopped. The hunters who jet into Pakistan are very rich and often royal. They come from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. Bustard meat's apparently thought to do wonders for the sex drive. The feathers of the bustard are dull brown, good camouflage you'd think, if you're trying to hide in Pakistan's deserts and plains, but the Arab princes use falcons with very sharp eyes and even sharper talons.
To hunt a Houbara bustard in Pakistan you need a government permit. The species is listed as vulnerable and declining by international conservationists, but Pakistan's eager to get along with its rich Gulf neighbors. Every winter it doles out hunting permits to the Arab princes. Every winter there's an outcry about that from Pakistanis keen to save this likable bird.
This year the outcry is louder than usual thanks to a scandal last winter. It emerged that in January a Saudi prince and his friends killed 2,100 bustards in three weeks. That's 2,000 more than the so-called bag allowed by the government permit. Nothing can stop their highnesses and their majesties once they're out on their hunting sprees, one leading newspaper acidly remarked. Some Pakistani opposition politicians are now trying to stop their majesties. They filed a motion in Parliament saying bustard hunting by Arab princes is compromising Pakistan's sovereignty. This is a very long shot. Money from the Persian Gulf talks, bustards don't. Odds are as this winter sets in Pakistanis will have to go on trying not to let the bustards get them down.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.
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