Saudi prince's rare bird hunt stirs outrage in Pakistan after massive loan

LAHORE, Pakistan - Gulf Arab sheiks have long enjoyed close ties with Pakistan, but a Saudi prince's recent shooting spree, which culled more than 2,000 rare birds from preserves, has stirred outrage in the country just as Saudi Arabia propped up its economy with a $1.5 billion loan.

Pakistan's English-language daily newspaper Dawn broke the story this week based on a forest service report, "Visit of Prince Fahad bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud regarding hunting of houbara bustard," which detailed a three-week safari the prince and his entourage took. In all, the Saudi hunting party bagged 2,100 endangered houbara bustards. The prince, who owns a U.K.-built 270-foot motor superyacht and has a website depicting his philanthropic ventures, racked up the high score: 1,977 rare birds.

The houbara bustard appears on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List as vulnerable to extinction, with Pakistan's population of 110,000 feared to be decreasing by 30 percent a year. The prince's hunting party pursued the bustards on bird and wildlife sanctuaries and unprotected land across Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

The birds are globally protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Pakistan's government has long issued special bustard hunting permits to royals from Persian Gulf states, but they are usually limited to 100 over 10 days in certain areas, excluding reserves. The royal party apparently violated the permits and took down birds over the limit in reserves and protected areas.

Though the hunt took place at the end of January, Pakistan's media did not pick up the story until this week. Not long after Baluchistan forestry officials wrote their report on the prince's shooting party, Saudi Arabia loaned Pakistan $1.5 billion to help prop up its economy, effectively bailing out the Pakistani rupee and prompting the U.S. dollar's worth to fall from 105 rupees to 97.

Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has close ties to the Saudi royal family, spending time in exile in the kingdom after a military coup ended his second term in 1999. Prince Al-waleed bin Talal, Saudi financier and member of the house of Saud, has described Sharif as "Saudi Arabia's man in Pakistan," Reuters reports.

Arab royalty has long enjoyed the privilege of hunting in Pakistan, which has set aside more than 70 wildlife sanctuaries and game parks. Often the sheiks use falcons to hunt, and the bustard is a favorite target because, like the horns of the critically endangered rhinoceros, its meat is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

"Is there any more ridiculous reason to kill an animal?" Naeem Sadiq, a Karachi-based activist, asked in the Guardian in February. "If it's illegal for Pakistanis to kill these birds why should the Arab sheiks be allowed to do it?" Those concerned about the bustards' long-term viability point out that neighboring India bans their hunting outright.

Negative public reaction in Pakistan to its history of granting poaching privileges to elites did bring about a victory for the bustards after hunting season ended in February, however. The Lahore High Court placed an interim ban on all hunting of houbara bustards in the country's Punjab province.