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Poacher's playground

Naqib Ahmad Atal
A presidential decree by President Karzai outlawed the hunting of rare species such as the snow crane and the eagle. But century old traditions, fueled by demand from rich Middle Eastern dignitaries, means the…
24.05.2014  |  Jalalabad
Sarwar Khan and one of his falcons at his shop in Jalalabad. (Photos: Naqib Ahmad Atal)
Sarwar Khan and one of his falcons at his shop in Jalalabad. (Photos: Naqib Ahmad Atal)

Sarwar Khan, falcon perched on his arm, points a finger towards the Tora Bora Mountain (Spin Ghar), 60 kilometres south of Jalalabad. “That is one of my favourite spots,” says the falcon trainer, hunter and salesman, explaining his method of entrapment. “We put small ball-shape bells in the feet of the falcons, muffle their eyes by covering them with a leather hat and then tie them to a special trap,” says Khan, 42, who owns a business selling hunting dogs and falcons, mainly for foreign clients, in Nangarhar Province. “Once the birds are captured, we smuggle them to Arab countries via Pakistan,” Khan told Afghanistan Today.

Falcon bait

The falcons fly as bait over the mountains, attracting eagles who remain caught in the traps. “The dogs then find the eagles and bring them safely to our tents,” says Khan, who sells the live eagles and snow cranes he captures to wealthy clients in Pakistan and the Middle East. Khan has even learnt Arabic to improve his business – and it’s paying off. Three months ago Khan and his associates sold a rare bird for $32,000 to a Middle Eastern buyer.

Ali Haider, another hunter working in the lucrative birds of prey trade, says in rare cases, a single bird can sell for as much as $50,000. “One time I bought 500 birds to the market in a single day,” says Haider, emphasizing the demand for small and large birds from domestic and foreign clients. Such large-scale trade of endangered animals on Afghanistan’s markets may seem odd given President Karzai’s decree five years ago outlining the hunting of birds. Yet despite the decree from high-up, enforcement is poor. “The police should execute the law in order to prevent poachers illegally hunting these rare species,” says Shah Mohammad Mohmand, general director of the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) in Nangarhar Province. “If it is not tackled soon, I am afraid that in three to four years most of these birds will be lost forever.”

One hundred years of poaching

Poaching increased during the rule of the Taliban in the late 1990s when many Iranian and Middle Eastern hunters were granted access to vast areas of land to use for hunting in Afghanistan. But the tradition goes back even further, say experts. “It has more than 100 years of history in this country. A large number of high ranking officials have been involved in this business, and no one can do anything to stop them,” says Mohammad Halim Gharani, an environmental conservationist. Allowing Middle Eastern wealthy businessmen to use their lands as private hunting grounds seems to be a broader approach among Central Asian nations. A BBC report in January this year cited a spokesman for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as saying that certain Gulf Nations were allowed to hunt Houbara birds in Pakistan in the interest of “bilateral relations”.

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs (MoiA), Sediq Sediqi, insisted however that poachers in Afghanistan are being “arrested and prosecuted” and that the birds are being protected to the best of the government’s ability. No accurate figures exist as to the number of poachers against whom charges were pursued.

Hunting for an election victory

Bells are tied to a falcon's feet to entrap eagles.

But high-profile cases of poaching are regular. Only a few months ago, Tolo News reported that Mohammad Ismail Khan, running partner to presidential candidate Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, had invited a party of 60 people, including a Qatari minister, to hunt birds with falcons in Herat Province. Sayyaf’s team denied the accusations, but other government figures have also been accused of using hunting to attract favour with Middle Eastern and other governments.

Sarwar Khan defends the pro-hunting lobby pointing out that many families depend on the bird trade for work. He himself is not planning to stop anytime soon. “I have been in this business for 15 years. And in these years, I have partnered with many people from different nationalities, such as Afghans, Pakistanis, and Arabs,” says Khan, suggesting the business is booming.

Many species face extinction

Stakeholders say the hunting of eagles and cranes is taking its toll on environmental habitats. Abdul Wali Mudaqiq, a spokesman for NEPA in Nangarhar Province, estimates that 5,000 birds are smuggled abroad each year. Of 450 species, 150 are now seriously threatened, says Mudaqiq. “If poaching is not stopped, these species will be lost permanently,” he warns. NEPA, established in 2005, reports directly to the president.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan still has no designated ministerial portfolio for environmental protection. A spokesman for the regional department of agriculture - which oversees animal protection - in Nangarhar Province, Haroon Hand, says there is a large scale threat to Afghan wildlife and habitats: “If the hunting of these birds is not stopped, there will be major consequences for the environment.”