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Release of 500 captive-bred Houbara bustard in Pakistan

Release of 500 captive-bred Houbara bustard in Pakistan

Release of 500 captive-bred Houbara bustard in Pakistan

Article by: Lt Col (Retd) Ernest Shams

Photographs: Azmatullah

International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC) Abu Dhabi and Houbara Foundation International Pakistan jointly released 500 Houbara Bustard in Pakistan early this month of March 2017. These birds were bred in captivity by the National Avian Research Centre in Sweihan (Abu Dhabi) and released in Lal Sohanra National Park near Bahawalpur and other places of the Cholistan Desert.

In the past several years also, IFHC released hundreds of birds in Pakistan, amongst which the largest numbers were 600 Houbara in March 2015 and 200 Houbara in February 2016.

Since the birds are of the blood-line of Pakistan’s resident Houbara population, it is hoped that most of the birds will settle in their breeding ground in Balochistan, to repopulate the area and reinforce Pakistan’s current population of the species in the wild.

A recent report published by IFHC reveals a revolutionary success in their breeding programme by producing over 50,000 Houbara Bustard across their breeding centres; releasing hundreds of captive-bred birds to help sustain existing wild populations; and expanding the number of countries, including Pakistan, where the Houbara are being released.

Ever since the breeding programme began, over 206,000 Houbara have been bred. Of these, around 137,831 birds have been released into the wild.

Having been under highly specialized care, the birds brought to Pakistan were well-prepared to manage themselves in the wild. All the birds were individually tagged with identification rings, while selected birds were also tagged with satellite transmitters, for scientists to carry out monitoring of the birds after release and record their movements, habitat preferences and ability to breed.

Satellite data will be generated bi-weekly and locations of the birds will be communicated to Houbara Foundation International Pakistan for field validation and further investigations.

Before being moved from Abu Dhabi to Pakistan by air, the birds were closely examined and certified fit for release in nature.

All local cooperation was provided by Houbara Foundation and the Punjab Wildlife Department for receiving the birds and for their scientific release, under CITES Export and Import Permits along with necessary NOC which were exchanged between the two establishments in Abu Dhabi and Pakistan prior to transfer.

rig Mukhtar Ahmed releasing Houbara
Brig (Retd) Mukhtar Ahmed, President Houbara Foundation International Pakistan releases a Houbara Bustard


Houbara Bustard in flight

Annual Aerial Seed Broadcast by Partners in Conservation

Annual Aerial Seed Broadcast by Partners in Conservation

Pakistan Army and Houbara Foundation International Pakistan

Pakistan Army and Houbara Foundation International Pakistan


For those who have never seen a desert, the desert terrains are most likely to be associated with sand dunes, cactuses and camels. One would expect little rain and meagre vegetation. But there is much more to it than just that.

Cholistan Desert has its high and low sand dunes, and also supports several varieties of plant species which provide food and refuge to animals, birds and insects. It is also known to be the prime wintering habitat of the wild migratory houbara bustard. Indeed, Cholistan Desert is a Living Desert, and the houbara is its flag-ship species which indicates the health of the desert.

Houbara bustard – the winter visitor to Pakistan
Houbara bustard – the winter visitor to Pakistan

This habitat was in decline like all other habitats the world over due to overgrazing by domestic animals and wood-cutting for a variety of purposes. The main wealth of the nomadic communities living in the Cholistan are their cattle which are bred for sale, milked or shorn for wool. Thus, the backbone of Cholistan economy is cattle breeding and resultantly, overgrazing.

Domestic animals of local communities in the Cholistan Desert
Domestic animals of local communities in the Cholistan Desert

Keeping Alive a Living Desert

Almost two decades ago populations of the Houbara Bustard, the flag-ship species of the desert biome, were found to be in serious decline. The reasons: destruction of the habitats, due to overgrazing, wood-cutting, agricultural expansion and other human activities, coupled with indiscriminate hunting and illegal trapping.

Cholistan Desert was hardest hit because of its human communities and their livestock. The total livestock population in Cholistan has been estimated at 1,295,462 heads (Livestock Census of Pakistan, 2006, U. Farooq, H. A. Samad, F. Sher, M. Asim and M. Arif Khan, Pakistan Veterinary Journal). Therefore, before the desert was laid bare altogether, it was important to go beyond protection and preservation, and re-inforce the vegetation. Houbara Foundation International Pakistan requested the Pakistan Army to join hands in this noble cause and restore the habitat through aerial broadcast of seeds.

That’s the only way! Where dispersal by traditional means would be un-economical or impossible, large volumes of seeds can be dispersed only by aircraft and helicopters. Of course, success of aerial seeding also hinges on critical factors such as suitable seeds, distribution of the seeds during the right season and releasing them at the right moment and in the right location.

Partners in Conservation

In 1998 Houbara Foundation International Pakistan entered into partnership with Pakistan Army to carry out habitat restoration jointly. Since then, the Army has been providing a Mushshak aircraft to the Foundation on “Gratis” basis every year and also fabricated a Seed Broadcast Mechanism which is installed in the aircraft to ensure safe and secure flight during broadcast of the seeds over selected areas of the Cholistan Desert.


Monsoon rains from June-September are important for germination of seeds and growth of vegetation.

Accordingly, the Foundation coordinates the project with the Army to broadcast the seeds at a suitable time, and a representative of the Foundation accompanies the pilot every year to identify the target areas and broadcast the seeds according to the terrain.

19th Annual Aerial Seed Broadcast

On Thursday morning 4th August 2016 two aircraft piloted by Major Muhammad Naveed Ahmed and Captain Muhammad Javed landed at Sheikh Zayed International Airport Rahim Yar Khan.

Both pilots were briefed about : –

  1. Causes leading to the Habitat Restoration project.
  2. Houbara Foundation’s work of conservation.
  3. Types of seeds used in the broadcast.


The seeds consisted of: –

Serial Types of Seeds Local Names Quantities
1. Fagonia cretica linn zygophyllaceae Dharman 28 kg
2. Dipterygium glaucum Phel 35 kg
3. Farestia jacquemontii Lathia 12 kg
4. Mallah Berry  ملاح بیری 15 kg
Total 90 kg


The Mission

After the briefing, flight plans were prepared for two sorties. The seeds were loaded in the Seed Broadcast Mechanism and a ground trial was carried out before take-off.

The aircraft took off at 0945 hours and headed eastwards to the desert. The duration of the first sortie over target area was one hour and thirty minutes. After the first sortie, the aircraft returned to Sheikh Zayed International Airport to load the remaining seeds. The second sortie took off at 1155 hours and returned to the airport after one hour and twenty-five minutes.

At the end of the task, the aircraft were refueled, and the pilots returned to their unit.

Ground Survey

After the aircraft went back to their base station, a ground survey of the desert was carried out with following objectives: –

  1. To observe the condition of the terrain.
  2. To assess the condition of the existing vegetation.

There was heavy rain over a vast area of the desert and rain-water was seen extensively. A number of water holes were observed where sufficient water was available for the local communities and their livestock. The desert vegetation was also green as far as eye could see, and therefore promising for germination of the seeds broadcast this year.


The Cholistan Desert is a rain-less tract, but, tranquil, pollution-free and a quiet area. This unique desert habitat is shared by the Chinkara gazelle, wild cat, jackal, wolf, mongoose, squirrel, field rat, more than 140 species of birds, over 200 types of insects and as many as sixty varieties of snakes. Therefore, restoration of this unique habitat is of great importance.

Pakistan Army has continuously supported Houbara Foundation International Pakistan in this national cause, as “Partners in Conservation” for the last nineteen years, and together, the Army and the Foundation have broadcasted 2,100 kg seeds so far.

Ground monitoring of the target areas have consistently shown good results. The restored conditions are beginning to successfully support wildlife of the desert. However, habitat restoration remains a long and laborious task, and has not yet come to an end. The project demands patience and commitment and will continue until ideal conditions are met.

We hope that Pakistan Army will continue to play its vital role in habitat restoration and conservation of flora and fauna of the wild, in partnership with Houbara Foundation International Pakistan.

Cholistan – the living desert
Cholistan – the living desert


Release of Houbara Bustard in Pakistan by International Fund for Houbara Conservation, Abu Dhabi

Release of Houbara Bustard in Pakistan by International Fund for Houbara Conservation, Abu Dhabi

200 Houbara Bustard were jointly released by Houbara Foundation International Pakistan and International Fund for Houbara Conservation (Abu Dhabi) in Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Deer Breeding & Houbara Research Centre on 15th February 2016. This Centre was established a year ago in March 2015 over a vast area measuring 16 km x 4 km of the desert area of Lal Sohanra National Park, Bahawalpur, when a three times larger flock of the species, the largest number, were released. The huge enclosure is fenced and guarded to prevent illegal hunting, trapping, trespassing by local communities and their livestock, and to provide a rich habitat to the species.

The birds released were of the blood-line of Balochistan’s resident species, bred in captivity in Abu Dhabi and donated to Pakistan by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, to reinforce the resident wild population of the species in Pakistan.

Mr Majid Al-Mansouri and Mr Mohammed Saleh Al Baidani of the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, Brig Mukhtar Ahmed, President of Houbara Foundation International Pakistan, and Mr Khalid Ayaz Khan, Director General Punjab Wildlife & Parks Department released the birds.

Cages in which Houbara brought for release
Cages in which Houbara brought for release

All the birds, 600 in 2015 and 200 in this year were fitted with identification rings, while 30 of the birds in each flock were tagged with Argos-GPS transmitters, which are sending data twice weekly to help the International Fund and Houbara Foundation in monitoring the location of the birds; their migration patterns and breeding behaviours.

Argos-GPS transmitters
Argos-GPS transmitters, used for monitoring the location of the birds; their migration patterns and breeding behaviours

Evidence has shown that the flock released in Lal Sohanra National Park last year settled in and around the area despite the harsh summer temperatures of the Cholistan Desert.

Released Houbara in the freedom of the wild
Released Houbara in the freedom of the wild

Both flocks were transferred from Abu Dhabi to Pakistan by air in accordance with CITES regulations, permits and NOCs having been exchanged between the two countries well in advance.

Before being flown to Pakistan the birds were subjected to an assessment for health and their ability to survive in the wild and formal Veterinary Health Certificate was issued by the UAE’s Ministry of Water and Environment.

This year’s release became another milestone in the conservation project of the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan to improve wild stocks of the Asian houbara in Pakistan while the International Fund’s breeding programme has touched a landmark figure of 2,06,000 birds ever since the programme began. 46,014 Houbara chicks were produced in 2014 alone.

After the release, Mr Majid Al Mansouri wrote in the Visitors Book, “It’s a pleasure to see how this site developed and became a reserve for different wildlife species. I wish you the best.”

Release of the birds was a source of total joy to those who were present on the occasion.

All local cooperation was provided by Houbara Foundation for receiving the birds at the airport and their scientific release back to nature.




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