Last month, the tortured body of a man who filmed hunters in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province was found in the mansion of an influential politician and feudal lord. A day before, the hunting party – foreign guests of the politician – had been attempting to hunt houbara bustard, an endangered bird coveted for the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of its meat.
Locally known as tilor, the houbara bustard migrates to the Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab provinces of Pakistan in the winter months. The timid desert bird native to Central Asia has been listed as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, with a remaining population of around 42,000. Despite this, the chicken-sized bird has a complicated local status for its use as a bargaining chip in Pakistan’s foreign policy and international politics.
“I don't see anywhere in the world where an animal has similarly become a tool in foreign policy. This is a sovereign state, and this is a globally threatened species,” Rab Nawaz, senior director of programmes at WWF Pakistan, told VICE World News.
Hunting the migratory bird is prohibited to locals, yet the government regularly issues special hunting permits – each worth a little more than $100,000 – to foreign dignitaries, mostly from the Gulf region. This year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reportedly issued around 14 such permits to diplomats including the Emir of Qatar, the King of Bahrain, and the president of the UAE among other Gulf state officials and members of royal families.
In 2014, a Saudi prince reportedly killed 2,100 tilor birds during a 21-day trip. Each hunting party is typically granted a quota of around 100 birds over a 10-day period. Despite the major outcry that followed, the government is reported to have continued to secretly issue these permits.
In 2016, a blanket ban on tilor hunting imposed by the Supreme Court the year before was revoked, following government requests stating that tilor hunting is “a cornerstone” of maintaining Pakistan’s diplomatic ties with Middle Eastern countries.
Wealthy foreign hunters sporting falcons and accompanied by entourages composed of local elites and heavy security are commonplace in secretive high-stakes hunts that last for days on end.
Affluent feudal landlords facilitate the hunts, offering hospitality and resources to international hunters. “It's big money. They play host to them, they give them space, they allow them to build palaces on their lands, and this is how it goes on,” environmental journalist Afia Salam told VICE World News.
Some local residents in deprived regions of the country’s south cash in on the hunts and are compensated handsomely for it. “There is a whole ancillary chain attached to it. You have this whole service industry over there where food is being supplied to [hunting parties], so they have brought some degree of prosperity to the area,” said Salam.
But not everyone welcomes the hunters. The clandestine hunting expeditions have sparked a number of controversies over the years among conservationists and local farmers whose lands are cordoned off to facilitate the hunts that often end up damaging their crops and disrupting their work.
On Nov. 1, brothers Nazim and Afzal Jokhio were out examining their fields in their village in Karachi city’s Achar Salar Goth district when an SUV carrying two foreign hunters approached them. Nazim Jokhio flagged down the hunters to inquire after them.
“He asked them, ‘Why are you coming here? There isn't any hunting here, you should go to the hills 12 miles from here where tilor hunting takes place.’ [The hunters] started misbehaving in response,” Afzal Jokhio told VICE World News. Nazim began filming the encounter with his phone.
In the video, Nazim records the car’s number plate and trains the camera towards one of the hunters, who can be seen talking on the phone. Nazim is heard saying: “This is the man who is bullying us. He is giving us threats that he will call the police.” The man is then seen trying to snatch away Nazim’s phone. According to Afzal, the hunters proceeded to violently beat Nazim after they snatched his phone, and then returned it. Nazim later uploaded online a video statement narrating the incident.
Nazim afterwards reported the incident to the police. He then began receiving threatening phone calls demanding that he delete the video. Fearing the worst, he recorded a chilling video message saying that if anything happened to him, the people who had beaten him up would be responsible.
A video still of Nazim Jokhio in his last recorded video statement. Photo: Afzal Jokhio
That night, men who identified themselves as working for the local politician and lawmaker Jam Awais arrived at both brothers’ houses and demanded that Nazim come to their boss’ house to apologize for his behavior against the politician’s foreign guests.
The next day, Afzal and Nazim went to Awais’ residence, where the lawmaker’s men began thrashing Nazim as his brother helplessly watched. “They tortured him, and I told them that I have not brought him here for you to torture him. I did not expect them to do this,” said Afzal.
Afzal was then asked to leave his brother at the lawmaker’s house and to return the following day with tribal elders from his village to resolve the matter. But things turned for the worse before he could do so.
“During the day, one of their people came to fetch me. I thought that a tribal council meeting would be held and that I would be able to bring my brother home. When we reached [Awais’ house], I was informed that my brother had died,” said Afzal.
Nazim’s body was transferred to a local hospital. “When the medico-legal officer came to examine the body, he said that it was covered with torture marks from head to toe,” crime reporter Ali Raza, who was present at the hospital during the examination, told VICE World News.
Police have so far arrested six people for Nazim’s murder, including Jam Awais. The identity of the two foreign hunters remains unknown. Unhappy with the police investigation, Afzal requested the formation of a stronger investigation team to take over.
“In the police report, the police did not include the names of the foreigners. They had not even asked their names while the accused's remand was happening,” Afzal Jokhio’s lawyer, Mazhar Junejo, told VICE World News. “This was our main concern – that they had not included their names, but this was our bad luck.”.
So far, Junejo adds, investigators have no leads as to the foreign hunters’ identities.
“The new investigation team has said that it will be their first priority to find information on the car the foreigners used, but as of now, no record of it can be found.”
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.