Houbara bustard (locally known as Tiloor) is a migratory bird, which according to Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA), is considered to be threatened and predicted to go extinct within the next 15 to 25 years if excessive hunting, illegal trapping and trading continue.

The natural mortality of this bird is around 3.3% whereas mortality due to hunting (anthropogenic activities) is up to 73%. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) classified the houbara bustard as an endangered migratory bird due to its increased hunting mortality mostly in winter habitat. If the rate of hunting continues then the number of these birds will be reduced by 50% till 2015 and up till 2027 this specie will become extinct.

Houbara bustard has a great effect on the environment, due to its important position in the food web. Loss of Houbara bustard causes increase in populations of harmful organisms of lower trophic level (such as insects, spiders, small rodents and lizards) and may also impact populations at higher trophic level hence disturbing the food web. If we talk particularly about effects of houbara bustard in Pakistan, then it is perceived that its population attracts Falconers to strike at inaccessible areas of Baluchistan during last 5-10 years. It is also observed that due to decrease in houbara bustard population, number of rodents increase in north eastern part of Baluchistan thus increasing damage to agricultural crops and water channels.

Scientific name of houbara bustard is Chlamydotis undulata. Houbara bustard is brown in colour, with white under body, and black and light brown spots all over the body. Houbara bustard is about 55-65cm in length with a wing span of about 135-170cm. Females are a bit smaller than males, with about 66cm, while males are on average 73cm long. Houbara bustard is known to be very sensitive bird as if they feel any type of danger in their route then they never use that route again in their life. They typically spend from 3 to 5 years finding a mate. They travel in groups with one leader. In cases when flocks lose their leader, another bird, a “deputy” leads the group to its destination.

Houbara bustard is mostly found in the areas where temperature is between 4-34oC and annual rain fall is almost 140–230 mm. They are adapted to semi-desert, sandy, stony and arid conditions, specifically desert environments where large sand dunes and open deserts are present, without trees. They typically shy away from human habitations and disturbance.

In terms of their diet, houbara bustards are omnivorous and opportunistic, feeding on both animals, such as beetles, ants and small lizards, and plants. The astonishing fact about houbara bustard is that they don’t need to drink water because they fulfil their water requirements through the food they eat. Among insects, the most preferred food of houbara bustard are beetles, with Adesmia aenescens forming 49 %of their diet, whereas Formica rufa (2.4 %) and Blaps mucronota (2.2%) are their least favourite food. However the majority of their diet is plant based, feeding on animals only in winter time. Intake of animal food is low in October/November and moderate in December. Houbara bustard prefers to feed at sunrise (dawn) or dusk time. Their preferred desert plant species include Arsetia hamiltonii, Apparis deciduas, and Cicer arietinum.

Houbara bustard breeds between December and March. During the breeding season, males puff out feathers of neck and chest and make a display with a long graceful slow walk, dancing, glancing and deep booming calls. Females come to mate at one site and then select shallow, hollow scrapes in open grounds for laying eggs. Females mostly lay 3-5 eggs at a time in 13–14 cm wide nests. Nesting occurs from February to April. Egg incubation time lasts for about 23 days, and is done solely by females. Eggs are small, smooth, glossy, oval, light olive brown, well-spotted, red brown or greyish in colour. Females protect the chicks after hatching as they are at a risk of being preyed upon by monitor lizards, eagles, falcons and snakes. In exceptionally dry and hot years, houbara bustard may not breed.

In months of November and December, houbara bustards migrate from different areas like Mongolia, Siberia and Central Asian Republics (CARs) towards their breeding areas in Pakistan. Houbara bustards start their journey from Central Asia and Siberia covering a distance of about 4500 to 5000 kilometers to reach different cities of Pakistan like Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, and other arid areas of Sindh and Balochistan.

Balochistan is considered as the best breeding place for houbara bustard. Nag Valley also provides good breeding habitat. In Punjab, houbara bustard is split up in three habitats: Cholistan that includes Rahim Yar Khan, Sadiqabad, Yazman and Fort Abbas; Thalregion that includes sand dunes and areas like Mankera, Hazari, and Muzaffargarh; and Rajanpur area that contains drought conditions.

      -The writer Dr Mazhar Iqbal Zafar is an assistant professor of environmental sciences department in

Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.