The Hunting of Bustards in South Africa - Threats, Challenges and Opportunities
by Adrian Lombard
Houbara Male Bustard
A recent article by Ian Michler in Africa – Birds and Birding(1), highlighted concerns regarding the interest by Arabs in hunting Bustards with Falcons in Southern Africa. His article provides some insight into this possible threat to Southern African Biodiversity but the topic merits further consideration. Concerns regarding the hunting of Bustards by Arab Falconers in Southern Africa have been fueled by reports of land purchases by Arab buyers in South Africa, but indeed such concerns are not new. This has been one reason sited for the refusal to grant permits for Falconry in Namibia. Similar reasoning was applied by the Northern Cape’s Nature Conservation Department in its decision to prevent the use of exotic and hybrid raptors for Falconry in that province of South Africa. In recent years I have had the singular good fortune to represent South African Falconers at the International Association for Falconry and the Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF), and more recently, I have served as a member of the Board of that organization. I was one of the Working Group of the IAF that formulated its Policy Statement regarding the Saker Falcon. This involvement has allowed me two visits to the United Arab Emirates as well as contacts with Arab falconers so I have some grounds to comment on this issue.
The unsustainable hunting of the Houbara Bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) is of serious concern to Falconers, including many of those in the Middle East. To put this in context, the Houbara has been hunted sustainably for the past 2000 years and it is only in the past 50 years or less, that oil-wealth has permitted the excesses that we so abhor. This behavior could be compared to that of our own Victorian fore-fathers whose unsustainable hunting activities resulted in the virtual extirpation of many of the larger mammals of Southern Africa. The pendulum is turning in the Middle East, championed by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. The reintroduction of the Houbara Bustard is currently being undertaken in Morocco with a release rate of 10,000 birds per annum; is being initiated in Western Pakistan and examined in the Yemen. This will be the largest reintroduction program for a species ever and the production of Houbara Bustards in Abu Dhabi in 2008 was slightly in excess of 16,000 birds (2).
Falcon Hunting Bustard
I am skeptical as to the veracity of reports that suggest the potential for breeding projects of the Houbara in South Africa (1) and would consider that the control of such activity by our Conservation Authorities to be relatively straight forward. The breeding of Houbara Bustards in captivity is a remarkably complex and labor-intensive exercise. The Houbara does not imprint on humans or on an artificial environment. This means that they require constant management and habituation to keep them relatively tame in captivity. Coupled with this, being creatures that naturally occur in widely dispersed populations, they are very susceptible to disease when confined. The management problems are immense and can easily be seen by a visit to a Houbara Bustard breeding facility. The birds are housed in large sheds and entry to these requires dressing in clothing similar to surgical theatre “greens” and washing your feet in disinfectant. Each shed is staffed, around the clock by two “keepers”. Their duties include the weighing of all food and water consumed by each individual bustard. The birds are fed on specially formulated pellets and, when additional habituation is necessary, by hand with meal worms and “fuzzy” mice. Breeding is done by artificial insemination. Semen is collected by inducing the males to mate with taxidermy specimens. The females are inseminated and the eggs are removed to induce multiple clutching. The eggs are then artificially incubated. This must only seek to emphasize that we must never allow our indigenous Bustard species to be impacted in this fashion as we could not contemplate a reintroduction program of this complexity.
The scenario of Arab hunters targeting Southern African bustards would appall most conservationists and certainly elicits a knee-jerk reaction in people who are interested in the wellbeing of our Biodiversity but this may bear closer consideration. Bustard populations in Southern Africa are not currently hunted in any conventional sense. Historical hunting of the larger bustards with rifles and shotguns was not sustainable. Bustards are currently facing a number of threats including habitat loss and death through collision with fences and power-lines. These birds show slow recruitment rates due to small clutch sizes and slow maturation. Of the 10 species of Korhaans and Bustards in South Africa, 4 are listed in terms of the Biodiversity Act of 2004. The Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori), Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens) and Ludwig’s Bustard (Neotis ludwigii) are listed as vulnerable, while the Denham’s Bustard (Neotis denhami) is listed as protected. None of the other Bustards are listed in terms of this legislation but a permit would be required to hunt them. Of these, all are considered not threatened globally, although the White–bellied Korhaan is considered vulnerable in South Africa and Black –bellied Bustard is considered near-threatened in South Africa (3). Mammalian species in similar categories of protection are hunted on permit, so whilst legislative controls are in place to control or prevent the hunting of these birds; this protection does not preclude their hunting under special permit. Arab Falconers may be particularly interested in hunting those species that most equate to the Houbara Bustard in terms of size, but it is possible that any bustard species will be of interest to them. Only the Kori Bustard would be excluded as it is too large for consideration (if for no other reason). Much of the evidence that we have for Arab interest in the hunting of Southern African Bustards appears to arise through contact with Hunting Outfitters. The most likely scenario is that the Arab hunter sees the local bustards and enquires about the possibility of obtaining falcons and hunting the bustards. Approaches are then made to local falconers and Nature Conservation officials. These approaches can be seen as relatively trivial as the enquirers have not yet considered the considerable logistic implications for this form of hunting. What cannot be considered as trivial is the other prospect, that there is significant and knowledgeable interest in the hunting of Southern African Bustards and that this is the motivation behind large land purchases in the Karoo and Eastern Cape. I am aware of no real evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case, however.
Arab Falconers wish to practice their traditional style of Falconry which they see as an integral part of their heritage. The dramatic changes to their lifestyle and environment, wrought by oil wealth, have made them crave the traditional practices that provide stability to their society and their lives. Traditional Arab Falconry involves the hunting with large falcons, generally Sakers, and the prize quarry is the Houbara Bustard, although Thick Knee (Burhinus sp.) and Hares are also pursued. The traditional style is described as “out of the hood” or “pursuit” falconry. In this style of Falconry the quarry is sighted, the Falcon’s hood is removed and the falcon is cast off to chase the flushed quarry. The Falconer then follows the hunt on foot, horse or camel-back, or, more recently, 4X4 SUV. Chases can be a kilometer or more and hawk needs assistance from the falconer to keep pressure on the bustard which, being a feisty quarry, will fight back on the ground and an unassisted hawk may think twice about tackling such large quarry again. Arab Falconers view the traditional Western Falconry method, where the falcon is trained to “wait-on” above quarry that is flushed, with disdain. They believe this form to be less sporting and less exciting. Similarly they show disinterest in the traditional Western quarries such as duck and game-birds. For these reasons, safari operations offering “western style” falconry to the Arab market have failed.
Consideration must be given to the logistical challenges that would face the provision of Falconry opportunities to Arab Falconers in South or Southern Africa if the legal and permitting restrictions were to be overcome. To do this we need to examine each of the components required for this practice.
1. The Falcons: Only large, aggressive and heat-tolerant birds are suitable for this practice. These would include Sakers and Gyr X Saker or Peregrine X Saker Hybrids. Pure Gyr falcons could possibly be flown in the Karoo in winter, with great care. There are no indigenous falcons that hunt Korhaan. The African Peregrine could possibly be induced to take Black Korhaan but would be very unlikely to do this on any sort of regular or predictable basis. The Arab Falconers could bring their own birds from the Middle East. These birds would be subject to a 1 month quarantine which would mean that they would require fitness training before they could be hunted. They would also be out of season with their molt coming from northern to southern hemispheres. Essentially this is not a practical proposition. The alternative would be to establish a collection of hunting birds in South Africa. A Falconry bird will generally only take one kill per day, with good fortune. A falconer will require 3 birds to have at least 2 hunts per day. In order to establish sufficient birds on a renewable basis for an operation of any magnitude, a breeding facility would be required with birds set aside for breeding purposes. This sort of operation would require competent staff, with the knowledge to fly big Falcons, the ability to run a very technical breeding facility and manage the veterinary problems associated with these exotic and valuable birds.
2. The Quarry: The Karroo and Blue Korhaan are territorial and can be found fairly predictably in suitable habitat. Ludwig’s and Denham’s Bustards are more mobile and are less predictable although appropriate habitat management would increase numbers and may have the effect of concentrating birds. As already mentioned the slow recruitment of these birds would mean that overhunting would rapidly denude the farms purchased by Arab investors (if this is indeed the purpose of those farms) of suitable quarry. The next alternative would be to purchase or hire hunting rights on other land, given that most huntable land is in private hands.
3. Hunting Requirements: The Arab hunting style and preferred quarry requires large open spaces. Hunts may easily cover a kilometer or more. Internal fencing on the farms would have to be dismantled and boundary fences (to say nothing of neighbor’s permission) would pose a considerable problem. Following the hunt is also a significant issue. The use of horses in the Karoo or Free State veldt, riddled with Aardvark and ground squirrel holes, is somewhat limited. Quad-bikes or 4X4 vehicles are a possibility, but also have limitations (to say nothing of ethical considerations). The author’s personal opinion is that, even given the considerable enthusiasm of the Arab Falconers who like to be in at the kill, much of the South African terrain is too rugged and unsuitable for this style of hunting to be carried out in any real magnitude.
The Draft Norms and Standards for Hunting in South Africa, in their current form, contain a definition of Falconry and will have the effect of making Falconry a legitimate hunting method. In terms of these regulations, all Falconers will need to hold a Grading from an Accredited Grading Body and this will be reviewed annually. The Falconers believe that this Accredited Body should be the South African Falconry Association (SAFA), being the umbrella organization representing all of the Provincial Falconry clubs in South Africa. This body has set minimum standards for the practice of Falconry in South Africa since its inception some 20 years ago and has the current Grading System written into its Constitution. This Grading System is currently under review and will be re-vamped to reflect current practice and circumstances. This process will not compromise the system and, if anything, the requirements for higher grades will become more formal and rigorous. The Grading System ensures that our Falconers are competent and responsible and is admired and envied elsewhere in the world. In terms of the Grading System, only A Grade Falconers may fly Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus minor) and only those with sufficient experience flying Peregrines may fly exotic falcons. This limits the use of exotic falcons to a very select few and, coupled with SAFA’s very stringent requirements for the flying of these falcons, negates any impact that these birds would have on our biodiversity. In terms of the Draft Norms and Standards legislation, SAFA, as the Accrediting Body, would have considerable say and interest in any venture involving the hunting of Bustards with Falcons in South Africa. Indeed those involved would be outside the law, without a Grading from SAFA. Falconers in South Africa have an excellent record of co-operation with the authorities and we have demonstrated ourselves clearly willing to restrain any “deviant” practitioners of our Art. SAFA is a Member of the International Association for Falconry and the Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF), which, itself, is a full member of the IUCN, the World’s largest conservation organization. Sustainable use is the cornerstone of IUCN strategy.
The Nature Conservation Authorities in South Africa are well informed regarding Falconry. Appropriate Falconry Policies are either in place or in process, both on a national and provincial level. Similarly any illegal or unacceptable activities by members of the professional hunting community would receive rapid sanction by AGRED, the South African delegation of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC) or PHASA. It is difficult to envisage a situation in South Africa, given the competency of the Nature Conservation Authorities, the well-motivated bodies which control hunting as well as the vigilant Conservation NGOs, where bustard hunting on any organized or commercial scale could be practiced illegally.
Ian Michler quotes the depredation of Sahelian species resulting from unsustainable hunting as a result of the “Tragedy of the Commons” in that region (1). This clearly does not apply to the South African situation where private land ownership has resulted in custodianship which has benefited many indigenous species. Indeed the Middle Eastern purchasers of land in South Africa are following a very different pattern to that which we are decrying in North Africa and their intentions for this land need to be investigated. Further lessons can be learned by examining this contrast. South Africa has a proud tradition as an innovator of “sustainable use” conservation. It is possible that the sustainable hunting of Bustards could benefit conservation through habitat improvement and extending conservation measures to additional large tracts of land. It may also be of benefit to the economy through creating jobs, developing infrastructure and drawing additional well-paying tourists to our land. Before any Bustard hunting can be countenanced in South Africa, a thorough Environmental Impact Study should be done, to establish which, if any, species can be hunted, what numbers could be harvested and what dates could be considered for hunting seasons. It is the opinion of AGRED that Bustards should not be hunted in South Africa and such an E.I.A is likely to fail to show that Bustards can be hunted. Falconers with the wealth to purchase large areas of farm land can be required to fund these studies, if the hunting of Bustards is indeed their intention. Over and above this, effective checks need to be in place to ensure that hunting quotas are not exceeded and all Falconers, be they professional, paying guests or foreign nationals, must comply with the law and the grading requirements of SAFA. Furthermore, there must be strict controls on the number of exotic falcons utilized and the restraints governing their use, imposed by SAFA and enumerated in the Falconry Code of Conduct applied by the Dept. of Agriculture, must be enforced. While such measures are probably possible, it remains the opinion of SAFA and that of the Author, that Bustard hunting on any significant scale is not desirable and will certainly create problems that we wish to avoid. Falconry currently enjoys a position where it is acknowledged as being a minimally consumptive sustainable use activity that encourages conservation. This position is jealously guarded by Falconers in South Africa.
The hunting of Bustards with Falcons in South Africa may present a means of encouraging conservation through sustainable use. It remains uncertain whether sustainable use is a practical possibility and it is probable that it is not. If this activity is prohibited in South Africa, the potential Falconers may cast their eyes elsewhere. Falconry is well established in Zimbabwe and conservation authorities there are capable of restricting activities of this nature. Falconry has been forbidden in Namibia and there is little knowledge of this activity amongst the authorities. This may make the country more vulnerable as the checks and balances enumerated for South Africa are not in place. There are suitable areas in Angola and Zambia but these countries lack the South African infrastructure and share the negative issue of being in the Southern Hemisphere. East Africa, in particular Tanzania, must be seen as vulnerable to unsustainable bustard hunting practices and particular vigilance is needed with respect to East Africa as a whole. We must also be alert to the danger of illegal trapping and trade in our bustards which could certainly pose a serious unsustainable threat.
The best way to ensure the co-operation and compliance of Falconers in defeating any threat to our biodiversity, be it the unsustainable hunting of bustards or the use of significant numbers of exotic raptors, is to continue to permit a controlled, limited and sustainable harvest of wild raptors for Falconry purposes. This process is now well understood by our conservation authorities, the Bird of Prey Working Group of EWT and Birdlife South Africa. Falconers are very cognizant of this significant privilege and will defend it through maintaining standards of excellence, compliance with the law and involvement in conservation. This is indeed Conservation through Sustainable Use, as envisaged by the Convention on Biological Diversity.