- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
The houbara bustard — a gawky, turkey-sized bird with spindly legs, a long, thick neck, and a goofy mating ritual — would be a mostly unremarkable species, except for one thing: It is the prey of choice for Arab falconers, who have hunted the bird to the brink of extinction in the Persian Gulf. And over the past 20 years, it has become a recurring character in a strange geopolitical drama featuring wealthy Arab sheikhs, the CIA, and Osama bin Laden.
In February 1999, the CIA had tracked bin Laden to a houbara hunting camp in southern Afghanistan, according to Steve Coll’s authoritative book Ghost Wars. An Emirati royal had traveled to the province to hunt houbara with his falcons, and bin Laden took shelter in the sheikh’s camp. The agency considered launching cruise missiles at the camp to kill the terror leader, according to Coll. Had it not been for his royal friend, whom the CIA feared might also die in a strike, bin Laden might have ended up dead.
Instead, bin Laden’s close call at the houbara hunting camp stands as a testament to one bird’s role as an unlikely bit player in the struggle for South Asia. By virtue of the bird’s appeal to the Gulf’s falconers, some of whom also happened to be major supporters of the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, the houbara has repeatedly surfaced on both sides of the war on terror. Think of it as the bustardization of U.S. counterterrorism policy.
With the houbara all but hunted to extinction in the Gulf, oil sheiks have flocked to the deserts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the migratory houbara spends its winters and where Arab falconers spend millions of dollars each year to stage large hunts in the area, flying in tent cities and specially designed all-terrain SUVs for weeks at a time. These hunts have decimated the houbara population, leading the International Union for the Conservation of Wildlife to label it a vulnerable species, meaning it has lost a large proportion of its population and is approaching endangerment.
But that hasn’t stopped the hunts: Last week, the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department reported that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Fahd spent three weeks in January near Chagai, Pakistan, during which time he killed 2,100 of the birds, including some poached from a wildlife preserve. Nevermind the fact that Pakistan has a placed a legal limit of 100 birds per hunter. That’s no obstacle in the corrupt political and environmental disaster that is the contemporary Arab sport of kings.
Pakistanis are banned from killing the birds, which are thought to be an aphrodisiac, and Arab falconers have to obtain licenses to hunt the houbara. It is the most challenging game for trained falcons because of its speed and a defense reflex that involves vomiting a slimy excretion that can incapacitate falconers’ birds of prey, each of which can cost in the neighborhood of $275,000. The bird’s "meat [is] tough and stringy … and left a bitter aftertaste," according to Mary Anne Weaver, who ate one of the birds as a guest on a houbara hunt, which she wrote about for the New Yorker in 1992.
Arab falconers had for centuries hunted houbaras in the Middle East. When those numbers began running low in the 1970s, they turned to South Asia. Many wound up cutting deals with Pakistan, where Gulf royals offered lavish gifts to Pakistani officials and wardens and leased swathes of prime houbara habitat. These "hunting fiefdoms are, in effect, Arab principalities," Weaver wrote. "They sprinkle the vast deserts of Balochistan, Punjab, and Sind, covering hundreds of miles." Prince Fahd’s 2,100-bird haul this past January is not unusual: Falconers took home comparable numbers of birds after the hunts in the early 1990s, according to Weaver’s account.
After escaping a U.S. cruise missile attack in August 1998, bin Laden fled to one of these camps. In February 1999, the CIA received intelligence that bin Laden was living in luxury at an Emirati houbara hunting camp in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The CIA monitored the camp for two weeks and nearly authorized a strike to take him out, according to Coll. Ultimately, fears that the strike might also kill the Emirati royal and spark a diplomatic crisis led the agency to scrap the plan.
But houbara hunting grounds haven’t only provided shelter to bin Laden: They’ve also been useful to the CIA. To accommodate their C-130s filled with loads of tents, generators, air conditioners, SUVs, and houbara-tracking radar equipment, some Gulf royals built private airstrips in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That proved convenient for the CIA in 2001, when the United States began looking for air bases near Afghanistan where it could quietly set up shop. For a decade, the United States flew drones out of Shamsi airbase in Pakistan, which was built in the 1990s to facilitate falcon hunts.
When the Pakistani military disclosed that the United States had been flying drones out of Shamsi for years in the aftermath of the May 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, it provoked a public outcry and demands that U.S. forces be expelled from the country. But the Pakistani military claimed to be powerless to halt drone strikes launched from Shamsi. As detailed in Rachel Maddow’s book Drift, the military claimed the base had been signed over to the United Arab Emirates for houbara hunting. (That arrangement lasted until December 2011, when, Emirati-controlled or not, the Pakistani government evicted U.S. forces from Shamsi.)
But the houbara might not always figure so prominently in the geopolitics of the region. Houbara hunting has reduced the bird’s population dramatically. More than 20 years ago, Weaver quoted a retired Pakistani inspector general of forests who recalled that the houbara were once as plentiful as "butterflies in a field" before Balochistan became a vacation destination for wealthy falconers. A 2004 study estimated that the bird’s population has decreased 35 percent since the mid-1980s, primarily on account of overhunting. Some progress has reportedly been made by an Emirati-financed houbara conservation organization, but the World Wildlife Fund noted in a statement that a comprehensive survey of the houbara population does not exist.
Pakistanis have met the reports of Prince Fahd’s hunting spree with anger. "The prince’s actions," columnist Faraz Talat wrote in Dawn, "are the equivalent of your house guest repaying your warm reception by playing cricket in your living room and grinning broadly as he poses for a picture next to a pile of broken furniture and fine china."