Arabia's Most Coveted Quarry - the Houbara Bustard
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the past, to the Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula, hunting the houbara bustard was as natural as life itself. Since the beginning of time, a Bedouin riding his horse or camel with a falcon on his wrist and accompanied by his faithful saluki dog, searching for houbaras, was a common sight. Today, this romantic picture has all but faded as the technology of the 20th century takes over the hunt. With guns and Land Rovers, men have almost eliminated this shy, secretive desert bird from the Arabian sands.
The houbara was an essential element in Arab falconry – for hundreds of years known as the ‘sport of kings’. However, hunting this bird was not a simple one-sided diversion. Before the advent of modern firearms, this royal pastime gave the houbara a sporting chance. For centuries, bedouin, falcon and houbara existed in natural balance until rifles and motor vehicles upset the equilibrium.
With the introduction of deadly weapons, the houbara, a very prized quarry of falconers, has become one of the world’s top endangered species. Resembling a small ostrich, this magnificent bustard, until its near decimation in our times, was once common in every corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, even though its numbers have plummeted, it has not been totally
lost to humankind. Conservationists are fighting back trying hard to save this intelligent and attractive desert fowl.
Houbara, chlamydotis undulata, is one of the 23 species of bustards and have the widest distribution in that family of birds. Keeping away from human activities as much as possible, they have roamed for millennia the deserts and steppes from North Africa to central Asia. In the Arabian Peninsula, there are some who remain year-round and others come only to winter – appearing in October and departing in April. They migrate in large flocks until they reach their destinations in Central Asia where they break up into small groups.
Shy-large birds, they vary in size from 97 to 335 cm (15 to 52 in) in height and usually weigh about 2 kg (4.4 lb) for mature males and 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) for females. They have a turkey-like build with a small tail, broad wings, long neck, and legs, and are noted for the elongated white crown, and long black-and-white feathers along the side of the neck. Like all other species of bustards, they are land birds who make their nests in the ground – laying from one to five speckled brownish-olive eggs.
When resting or feeding, houbaras are effectively camouflaged against the desert landscape. On the other hand, in flight, their black and white exposed wing patterns make them very conspicuous. Yet, these bold colorings which many times bring on disaster, cannot be hidden. They are the base of their spectacular courtship displays.
Admirably suited for desert lands, these much sought after trophies of falconers need no water. They are satisfied with moisture gained from fresh shoots, seeds; and all types of insects, especially beetles, locusts, and small lizards. From these foods houbaras find enough liquids to fully maintain their water balance. It is said that no other creature is better suited for living in a hot and arid environment.
Falconry, an integral part of the desert Arab’s heritage, evolved around the houbara. A falcon’s worth depended on its ability in downing this now virtually disappeared bustard. Before motor vehicles and high powered guns, the chase was an elaborate sport which followed traditional methods.
When a houbara was spotted by the Saluki or the hunter, the bird usually made a desperate attempt to escape, flying a few feet above the sand. The falconer would then un-hood his bird and raise it above his head. As soon as the sharp eyes of the falcon spotted the houbara it would stream across the sky at a tremendous speed and in a few minutes down its quarry. By the time its master arrived, the falcon usually had begun to devour its prey. To appease his bird, the hunter would cut off the head of the bustard and give it to his falcon, then feast with his family and friends on the houbara’s delicious meat.
Hunting by this age-old method was not always successful. The houbara flies with deceptive power and speed. To evade the stooping falcon, it soars high in the air dodging its predators’ attacks with great skill. If cornered on the ground, it defends itself with jabs of the bill and powerful wing-stabs. At times, it puts the hawk out of action by squirting a dark green slime which can glue the feathers together and temporarily blind the attacker, giving the bird a good chance to escape.
On the other hand, the modern assault on the houbara has changed the odds. Even though the mass hunting of this desert bustard is not a natural bedouin trait, modern technology has entrapped the men of the desert in its web. Today, with over 70% of the birds dying due to hunting, the houbara has been listed by the World Conservation Union as an endangered species.
Unlike the chase in our affluent times, the Bedouin in the bygone ages hunted out of necessity. Two birds after a day’s hunting were the usual catch and bustard meat was a welcome addition to the family’s diet of dates and rice. Enhanced by the houbara‘s delectable meat, the evening meal was a much-looked-forward-to culinary delight.
Unfortunately, in the last few decades, overgrazing and hunting by motor vehicles have destroyed much of the desert bustard’s habitat and almost wiped out their entire population. Conservationists in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and in institutes like the Kent University in Great Britain are trying hard to increase the numbers of the few which remain, but houbaras are extremely difficult to breed in captivity, needing properly protected reserves in which to thrive. Centers have now been established in such countries as the United Arab Emirates to help preserve, to breed and increase the number of houbaras. In the United Arab Emirates, the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) of the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA), has done much in helping to re-introduce the vanished houbara into the Arabian Peninsula. Its hunting has been banned and at Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain Zoo and the island of Sir Bani Yas, there are today hundreds of houbaras thriving in captivity.
In 2005, the number of captive-bred houbara bustard at the (ERWDA) center, located in Suweihan, reached 400 and are expected in a few years to reach 10,000 annually. The number of these birds bred at this center is expected to gradually grow over the years, leading to making it the world’s largest breeding center for this endangered species. In the coming years, some of the houbaras raised in captivity will remain at the center for breeding while others will be released into the wild.
The UAE was also the first country in the world to track houbaras both on their northerly and southerly migrations. In 1997, five wild houbaras were captured and fitted with solar-powered transmitters, then, using satellite tracking techniques were followed on a journey from their wintering grounds in the UAE to their breeding grounds in Central Asia where, because of excessive hunting, they are now also endangered.
It is expected that the efforts of aviary preservation organizations such as the NARC will contribute greatly to the conservation efforts of the houbara. Work in the UAE and other countries is expected to continue for many years on trying to revive this bird in the wild. It is hoped the houbara will again flourish and the Bedouin with his camel, dog, and falcon pursuing this Arabian bustard will again come to life.