The sport of hunting game birds by setting trained falcons upon them is said to have originated in China 4,000 years ago. Among the pre-eminent practitioners of falconry were Chengis Khan and Alexander the Great. The latter was introduced the sport by the Persians and he in turn introduced it in Europe where it thrived till the Middle Ages.
Hunting with falcons arrived in India with Babur and vanished with the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The popularity of the sport can be gauged from a 17th century painting by Willem Schelinks which was auctioned by Sotheby’s in December last in London. It was estimated to fetch `A360,000. However, after an art historian identified the five figures in the foreground as Emperor Shah Jahan tutoring his four sons in the art of falconry, the painting went under the auctioneer’s hammer at `A3378,000.
Not so long ago, there were 22 species of the bustard in the world. Of these, only six species were found in Asia, three each on either side of the Hindu Kush mountain divide. Except for one species which inhabits Australia, the rest 15 live in the Ethiopian region of Africa.
The three species south of the Hindu Kush breed and live in India. And one of them is the famed great Indian bustard (GIB), which is also the largest of them all in the world. But today this majestic bird is on the brink of extinction. According to the latest counts, Dr Asad Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society placed its worldwide population in September last at below 500. That makes the great Indian bustard also the rarest among all other bird species inhabiting the Indian sub-continent.
Indians, especially students, have made valiant efforts to save the great Indian bustard. Back in 1972, when the Saudi Royals were provided diplomatic immunity to cross over from Pakistan to Rajasthan in pursuit of the bustard, about 1,000 schoolchildren gathered at India Gate. Each child draped over his apparel the poster "Eat Custard. Spare the Bustard" in bold capital letters. And they walked in total silence first to all the Gulf region embassies and then to Indira Gandhi’s residence. Once there, the youngest child made bold, took off his poster and gracefully handed it to Mrs Gandhi. She responded at once, revoking the diplomatic immunity granted to the Saudi royals to hunt the great Indian bustard in India. Fortunately that decision has remained in place ever since.
Hunting the bustard with falcons survives in the Gulf region to this day. The fanciers of the sport are the princes of the House of Saudi and other chiefs of the Gulf Emirates. Their prized quarry comprised the little bustard, the great bustard and the houbara or the Macqueen’s bustard. All of them bred in Central Asia, north of Hindu Kush. Till about the 1960s, all three species migrated in winter mainly to Pakistan, and small numbers to Rajasthan, Punjab and Gujarat as well. But by 1975, the little and the great bustard species were believed to be extirpated.
Presently, the houbara (which is often confused with the great Indian bustard) alone survives north of the Hindu Kush. Of all the bustard species, the houbara is a prolific breeder. According to W.A. Kermani, Pakistan’s retired Inspector-General forests, the houbara were so plentiful in the 1950s that they could be counted from the roadways "like butterflies in a field". Just four decades later, unremitting hunting by the Gulf falconers coupled with local poaching reduced their numbers to about 30,000 birds in all.
The houbara migrate south from Central Asia in winters and enter Pakistan through the Chaggai district in Balochistan. The Saudi royals follow in the wake of the houbara in their fleet of 130-C aircraft.
Mary Anne Weaver of the New Yorker covered one such season and wrote on 14 Dec 1992:
"Some sheikhs have built personal airfields and constructed huge desert palaces in Balochistan...some live in elaborate tent-cities, guarded by legions of Bedouine troops...some of them even drill their own water holes...And they put millions of dollars into their hunts...They also provide Pakistan with some three and a half billion dollars annually in military and economic aid."
And at the end of the season each year "the Saudi royals alone kill at least 6000 birds whose meat is believed to have invigorating powers." Unfortunately, one feast on bustard meat is not an all-time aphrodisiac panacea. So these misguided human studs must eat one bustard a day, till kingdom come. Given the current surviving population of the houbara, the bustard species could be wiped out in three to four hunting seasons, the latest by 2011 AD.
If that eventuality fails to trouble the conscience of the world, may be Mary Anne Weaver’s description of the climax of the hunt would hopefully churn up everyone’s soul:
"The Shahin (falcon) soared for the sun, and came down on the houbara attempting to break its neck. The houbara flew on furiously and the Shahin struck again. The two birds spiraled downwards...the baby houbara lay exhausted but was still trying to kick. The first thing Shahin had done was blind its yellow eyes so that it could not run or fly away. Farouq (a camp follower) cut open the houbara’s stomach, retrieved its liver and fed it to the Shahin. He then hooded the falcon and ritually slit the baby houbara’s throat to conform with dietry laws. Now it is halal, he said — permitted in Islam."
Will mankind remain a mute spectator to the extinction of the only remaining bustard species north of the Hindu Kush? And of the last 500 great Indian bustards in India? And of the other two of India’s bustard namely the lesser florican and the Bengal florican which though more numerous than the great Indian bustard but are far removed from the survival comfort zone?