Persecution and Hunting
Trophy and Sport Hunting: Page 2 In the stark deserts of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula and the Mideast, wildlife is not abundant. Animals struggle just to survive in the harsh environment. A wild desert equine became a casualty of unrestricted hunting after World War I. The Syrian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus hemippus) was hunted to extinction for sport and meat. These wild asses had been hunted out of most of their original range by the 19th century, but in 1850, they were still seen commonly in large herds in the region once known as Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Perfectly adapted to the searing desert heat and sparse vegetation, they ran from natural predators at great speed, and their sand-brown coloration camouflaged them. After thousands of years of adaptation and survival, these delicately hued wild asses found themselves shot at by 20th century soldiers and other hunters. World War I troops and later, civilians in all-terrain vehicles, chased them at high speeds, killing entire herds of these equines for "sport." With no natural cover and unable to outrun jeeps, entire herds were slaughtered. The last known Syrian Wild Ass was shot in 1927 as it came down for water at the Al Ghams oasis in northern Arabia (Day 1981). The surviving populations of this species, the Asian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus), are listed as Endangered by the US Endangered Species Act.
After World War II, Arab sheikhs began hunting Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx), Arabian Gazelles (Gazella arabica) and Arabian Ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) in all-terrain vehicles and trucks, mowing them down with repeating rifles, shotguns and even machine guns. These macabre and senseless hunts even involved the use of planes and helicopters for spotting. Sometimes animals were pursued until they dropped dead from exhaustion. In 1955, some 482 cars took part in a hunt during the course of a "royal goodwill tour" in northern Saudi Arabia, and every living animal seen was gunned down (McClung 1976). The Arabian Ostrich formerly ranged from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, and it became a casualty of these forays. The last wild Ostrich was killed and eaten by Arabs near the Trans-Arab oil pipeline north of Bahrain between 1940 and 1945 (Greenway 1967).
The Arabian Oryx nearly followed the Ostrich into extinction when the last three individuals left in the wild were killed off in 1972 in southern Oman (IUCN 1978). This statuesque white antelope, with long, curved horns that arch over its back, once inhabited a wide range in the Middle East, from Syria and Israel to the Arabian Peninsula (Nowak 1999). It was saved from extinction by actions of the Fauna Preservation Society, headquartered in England, and the IUCN, which had undertaken an expedition in 1962 to capture some of the last wild Arabian Oryx for captive breeding. In eastern Aden, four oryx had been taken into captivity, and this herd was augmented from private game farms and zoos by another eight animals, which were transported to the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. They adjusted easily to the desert climate of the American Southwest and soon bred in captivity. This herd has grown, and several zoos now breed them. Some of these stately animals have been reintroduced successfully into preserves in Oman and other parts of their original range. They have been studied by field biologists who have found that they reverted to wild behavior, with females in separate herds, and males solitary or in bachelor herds defending territories (Nowak 1999). Eighteen breeding herds occupied 14,121 square kilometers in Oman in two 1988 studies (Nowak 1999). In 1990, more Arabian Oryx were reintroduced into Saudi Arabia. There are now about 500 of these oryx in the wild and an additional 300 in captivity on the Arabian peninsula; 2,000 are held in zoos (Nowak 1999). For many Arab conservationists, the return of the Arabian Oryx has been an important event because this species has been very important to the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years. The reintroduced oryx have been guarded zealously to prevent another tragic disappearance.
Gazelles of dryland and open country were at one time abundant throughout North Africa and the Middle East, able to survive in the hottest and dryest of deserts. People have long hunted them for food, and there is little cover where they can hide. In ancient times, stone corrals were constructed into which gazelles were driven for slaughter, and until the early 20th century, these were still in use (Nowak 1999). Some Arab hunters still use captive and trained falcons to harass gazelles in order to frighten and confuse them so they can then be chased down by dogs (Nowak 1999). Two of these small and dainty ungulates have been hunted to extinction, and others have become very rare throughout the region. The Antelope Specialist Group of the IUCN lists the Saudi Gazelle (Gazella saudiya) as extinct in the wild and the Queen of Sheba's Gazelle (Gazella bilkis) of Saudi Arabia as extinct, with no captive populations. Until the 1990s, the latter species had been classified as Endangered. But the 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that this delicate animal, which was considered very common in 1951, has not been seen in decades. A survey in 1992 in its range in mountains near Ta'izz failed to find any of these gazelles.
The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes many other gazelles of the region as Threatened and Endangered. The Arabian Gazelle (Gazella gazella), native to the Arabian Peninsula, Israel and Palestine, is classified as Conservation Dependent, a category indicating that without strict protection it would decline to Threatened status. Five subspecies of this gazelle are listed in various categories, the most endangered being the Palestine Mountain Gazelle (Gazella gazella gazella) (Conservation Dependent) and the Acacia Gazelle (Gazella gazella acaciae) (Critical) of Israel, and the Muscat Gazelle (Gazella gazella muscatensis) (Critical) of Oman. Another threatened gazelle is the Arabian Sand Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa marica) (Vulnerable). These little Mideastern gazelles have been heavily persecuted and hunted. Added to the hunting, which is not well controlled, the Arabian Peninsula and much of Israel and Palestine have been heavily overgrazed by livestock, and the scarce oases are used for agriculture and livestock, leaving little natural vegetation for wildlife.
Reintroduced gazelles in Israel's Golan Heights increased to about 4,000 in the late 1980s, and government officials decided to allow the hunting of 2,000 of them by Arabs, who shot to wound rather than kill so that the animals could be killed ritually through throat slitting. This hunt, filmed by Afikim Productions and Survival Anglia in 1990, was a gruesome sight of crippled and dazed gazelles, stumbling about after the shooting.
The most avidly pursued animal by Arab sheikhs is undoubtedly the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata). The meat of this large, long-legged bird of scrubby desert and sandy grasslands is considered an aphrodisiac by Arabs, although in fact it is a mild diuretic (Weaver 1992). It has been hunted relentlessly on the Arabian Peninsula, causing many populations to disappear. Arab sheikhs have hunted these birds for centuries using a trained falcon that catches the bird as it flies to escape. The great oil wealth accumulated by sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates has allowed them to indulge in this "sport" in a manner befitting the bejeweled and pampered rulers of ancient kingdoms. With these bustards so rare on the Arabian Peninsula, they now hunt them in Pakistan. Traditionally, the sheikhs used camels as transport, but today they drive in fleets of 60 or 70 customized all-terrain vehicles, careening through the desert at speeds up to 80 miles per hour, flattening the landscape, vegetation and small animals under their wheels (Weaver 1992). Armed with high-powered guns to shoot any animal that comes into view, the sheikh occupies an elevated seat that swivels 180 degrees to enable him to spot the Houbara Bustards and their tracks in the sand (Weaver 1992). The ecological damage done by the armies of vehicles that flatten vegetation, scar the landscape, and slaughter every animal they see is so severe that it may result in the local extinctions of many rare and delicate species of the Pakistani desert (Hoyo et al. 1996).
Many Houbara Bustards winter in Pakistan, converging from breeding areas in Kazakhstan and other countries in the region. Their breeding range extends to North Africa east across Asia to China. In Pakistan and 23 other countries, including India, Iran and Russia, the Houbara Bustard is totally protected from hunting (Weaver 1992). Yet by means of lavish gifts and payments to high government officials and landowners, wealthy Arabs have received special dispensation to pursue and kill thousands of these birds, which are considered endangered and declining in many parts of their range, especially in North Africa, Bahrain, Jordan, Iran, Iraq and India (Hoyo et al. 1996, BI 2000).
These extraordinary birds present a spectacular show with their elaborate courtship, strutting and displaying beautiful white puffs of head and body feathers.* Some hunting, mainly illegal, also occurs in their breeding grounds, which greatly disrupts their courtship, nesting and care of chicks.
*"Red Desert," a film in the series “Realms of the Russian Bear” described in the Video section, shows these birds displaying and hunting lizards.
The hunts have been carried on for decades in Pakistan, and Houbara Bustards have declined steadily as a result. As early as 1983, scientists and conservationists at a symposium on bustards convened by the International Council for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife International) unanimously called for a five-year ban on hunting (Weaver 1992). Although Pakistan's President at that time supported the symposium, he ignored the appeal and, the following year, allowed 25 parties from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula to hunt; they killed more than 5,000 Houbara Bustards (AWI 1985). Since that time, hunts have continued in spite of changes in administration in Pakistan, and although Arab hunters realize that these birds are heading toward extinction, they have not decreased their kills or practiced conservation. Moreover, they are now hunting in new areas, close to breeding grounds (BI 2000).
One sheikh, the cousin of the ruler of Dubai, found no Houbaras in the tract where he had arranged to hunt. He then moved his camp into Kirthar National Park, where he illegally killed more than 200 Houbaras in 10 days, along with protected gazelles and ibex (Weaver 1992). As recently as the 1960s, Houbara Bustards were so numerous in Pakistan that they could be counted "like butterflies in a field," but by the 1990s, they became scarce in many areas, and their populations have experienced sharp downward trends (Weaver 1992). No restrictions are placed on the take of Houbaras by the visiting sheikhs.
Some Pakistani conservationists have fought the illegal arrangements made between the Arabs and government officials, and the Society for Conservation and Protection of the Environment (SCOPE), took the issue to the Sind High Court, which ruled in their favor (Weaver 1992). However, because Pakistani government officials rarely follow such provincial court decisions, the hunt did not end. When asked why the government has done so little to protect its wildlife, a well-known Pakistani environmentalist, Wahajuddin Ahmed Kermani, the retired Inspector General of Forests, replied, "Because we lack the moral fibre and the moral courage" (Weaver 1992).
Protests from conservationists in Europe and elsewhere have had no real effect either. Paul Goriup, the bustard expert at BirdLife International in Cambridge, United Kingdom, believes that populations of Houbara Bustards in Sind and Punjab provinces of Pakistan have become "terribly diminished," and hunting of breeding populations has a disastrous effect (Weaver 1992). Goriup contends that the species must be protected by the United Nations' Bonn Convention on Migratory Species to bring the issue to an international level (Weaver 1992). The Houbara Bustard is listed on Appendix I of CITES, which bans all commercial trade between member nations. Yet each year, 500 or more eggs, chicks and adult Houbaras are smuggled from Pakistan, a CITES member, by sheikhs who use them to train their falcons and for captive-breeding programs of dubious effectiveness. Abrar Mirza, the wildlife conservator for the Province of Sind, confiscates many such shipments, but most provincial wildlife officials merely look the other way, especially after receiving diamond-studded, gold Rolex watches and other such gifts from the Arabs (Weaver 1992). The confiscation of so many Appendix I birds in the United States would result in severe penalties, including possible jail sentences, but the effectiveness of CITES depends on the legislation each member country enacts to enforce it and the zeal with which these laws are enforced.
Sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were not so well-received in Turkmenistan in 1995 when they applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hunt Houbara Bustards. This Ministry forwarded the request to the Ministry of Nature Use which, quite unexpectedly, turned it down because the birds would be breeding (Zatoka 1995). Certain that they would be able to overcome this opposition, the sheikhs arrived in Turkmenistan ready to hunt without official approval, bringing their falcons (Zakota 1995). To their amazement, they were issued an official complaint by the Director of the Department for Animal Conservation and fined $40,000 (Zakota 1995). The sheikhs then turned to Turkmenistan's President Niyaziv, confident that they would be able to overturn the decisions of the wildlife department; instead, he backed up the decision of the Ministry of Nature Use, stating that it had jurisdiction in this issue (Zakota 1995). This was an extremely important precedent and a fine example of a country according its wildlife the respect and protection it deserves. Turkmenistan has a record of combating poaching and conducting environmental research and conservation programs (Zakota 1995).
One sheikh has renounced hunting and fostered environmental programs. Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, while hunting gazelles with a rifle, realized that this amounted to "an outright attack on animals" and a cause for their possible extinction (Morgan 1998). He then began a program of setting tracts of land aside for wildlife and setting up breeding herds of endangered oryx, gazelles and other desert ungulates on an island off the coast (Morgan 1998).
Other UAE sheikhs have obtained special favors when hunting on the African continent. The government of Tanzania granted exclusive hunting rights in one of the country's most important wildlife areas to a high-ranking official from UAE (Alexander 1993). The agreement was reached in secret with the Deputy Minister of Defense of that country, and he apparently has been allowed to hunt endangered species, such as Cheetah, with automatic weapons (Alexander 1993). The influence of wealthy Arabs in bending wildlife laws has reached to many corners of the world. One of their prime targets is North America for its beautiful Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus), listed on CITES Appendix I, one of the most coveted of all birds of prey for falconry. Their attempts at bribery, often successful, to obtain these protected birds from Canada resulted in the listing of this species on CITES to prevent any further commercialization of these birds, which was causing declines in their wild populations.