QUETTA/ISLAMABAD - The Balochistan High Court on Friday ordered cancellation of permits to foreigners, including Arab royals, hunting for a rare bird that conservationists warn is at the risk of extinction in the province.

The BHC issued the order on the petitions filed by two citizens, Muhammad Aslam Bhootani and Muhammad Saleem, challenging the hunting of houbara bustards and other birds by Arab royals in the province.

The federal government in 2012 issued 29 special permits to royal families and Arab officials for hunting the internationally-protected bird species in Balochistan and the other provinces.

Justice Jamal Mandokhail and Justice Ejaz Swati, in their verdict, said it was illegal for Arab royals or other foreigners to hunt houbara bustards and other endangered birds. “The hunting is illegal and violates the International Wild Life Conservation Convention,” said Justice Mandokhail.

During the hunting season, royal families from Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia come to Balochistan’s Dalbandin, Chagai and other areas for hunting.

The number of houbaras, considered to be at risk of extinction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, has fallen dramatically in the recent decades. The elusive bird migrates each winter from Central Asia to Pakistan’s warmer climes. Pakistan gives special licences to Arab rulers and senior officials for hunting the rare bird. The endangered species have almost been wiped out on the Arab peninsula and various countries in the region, including UAE.

The royal families have cemented good ties with influential people in the areas for hunting birds.

The BHC also issued notices to the interior ministry, Balochistan Chief Secretary Saifullah Chattha and the Wildlife Department in this regard.

The court directed the departments concerned to inform it of the action taken for protection of houbara and other birds in Balochistan that covers half of the country in terms of area. The Balochistan government provides tight security and protocol to Arab officials and royal family members during the hunting of houbara bustards.

The High Court bench announced this verdict on two petitions filed by former Balochistan Assembly Speaker Aslam Bhootani and Malik Muhammad Saleem belonging to district Kharan of the province.

During the hearing of these petitions, the additional advocate general of the province took the plea that such hunting sites are being allotted by the federal government and the provincial government has to respect such decisions of the Centre. Syed Ghulam Qadir Shah, IUCN coordinator for National Resource Management, told the court that houbara bustard is one of these birds whose hunting is prohibited. The court held in its verdict that the wildlife department falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial government and the areas where such sites have been allotted for the hunting of houbara bustard are also under the provincial domain. The court further said the federal government has neither power to declare any area of a province as a hunting site nor can it allow wildlife hunting. The court directed the Balochistan government to fulfil its responsibilities regarding protection of wildlife.

Pakistan is the only country which has allowed hunting the rare birds otherwise protected internationally.

Meanwhile, answering questions in the National Assembly on Friday, Federal Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir said the policy of hunting permits to the Arab dignitaries is reviewed every year by the government. He said hunting permits are issued on receipt of request from respective embassies and after approval of the prime minister. He said most of these dignitaries have taken keen interest in the development of the areas allocated to them for hunting.

The minister said it was purely a matter of goodwill and Pakistan was not compromising its sovereignty.