As the sun sets over the sandy dunes of Balochistan, hunting enthusiast Rizwan Talpur walks home with a variety of birds in his bag. In it is an assortment of grouse.
His hunting party of five is armed with shotguns, binoculars and traps.
The southwestern province of Pakistan is home to more than 300 bird species. But if he is lucky, Talpur can spot the Houbara Bustard, a rare bird species classified as “vulnerable”. The desert bird is known colloquially as tilor.
“It is primarily found in the far-flung areas of the province. That area is not accessible for locals because it is cordoned off by security forces,” Talpur told VICE World News.
These pockets of desert bordering Iran come to life with royal hunters and falcons every winter between November and February.
While hunting the tilor is out of bounds for locals and was temporarily banned, the Pakistani government allows Arab Royals to kill the shy, rare bird breed during annual hunting trips.
“A lot of money is thrown in when the hunting season begins, tents are set up, Arabs bring their SUVs and private jets to move in the region. It is the government who directly benefits from this activity and only a selected few local men are hired,” Talpur said.
During hunting season, the area becomes a no-go zone for locals as law enforcement agencies take control of security.
The Houbara Bustard is the official bird of Balochistan province. It is solitary, which makes it difficult to see. That only adds to the appeal for royal hunters in Pakistan who are keen to track them when they migrate from central Asia to escape harsh winters.
In Middle Eastern countries, Houbara hunting—which is done with trained falcons—is a sport. The meat of the bird is considered an aphrodisiac, though its efficacy has not been scientifically proven, according to Sana Baloch, a local veterinarian from Balochistan.
Pakistan issues special permits with mandatory hunting fees of $100,000 per dignitary, in addition to $1,000 for each falcon that the hunters bring to kill the Houbara Bustard. A hundred birds can be hunted in 10 days.
“In reward, the federal government hopes to get diplomatic favors and aid,” Baloch said.
Before coming to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan opposed the hunting of Houbara in the country. But the practice continues to thrive under his administration. The government could not be reached for comment, but in the past, the foreign ministry has maintained ambiguity when asked about this issue.
For the 2020-21 hunting season, invites were extended to the controversial Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, and the royal families of UAE, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.
One reason why the criticism about Pakistani hunting policy falls on deaf ears is because the country has been economically dependent on Arab countries in terms of loans and deferred oil payments.
In 2014, a Saudi prince reportedly killed 2,100 Houbara Bustards over three weeks.
Dr Pervez Hoodhboy, a physicist and a political commentator, finds diplomatic logic behind the exemption. “In any fundamentally asymmetric strong-weak relationship, the weak are generally anxious to appear weak
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