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Meet the Houbara Bustard: the Rare, Oversized, War-on-Terror Chicken

The houbara bustard -- a gawky, turkey-sized bird with spindly legs, a long, thick neck, and a goofy mating ritual -- would be a mostly unremarkable species, except for one thing: It is the prey of choice for Arab falconers, who have hunted the bird to the brink of extinction in the Persian Gulf. And over the past 20 years, it has become a recurring character in a strange geopolitical drama featuring wealthy Arab sheikhs, the CIA, and Osama bin Laden.

In February 1999, the CIA had tracked bin Laden to a houbara hunting camp in southern Afghanistan, according to Steve Coll's authoritative book Ghost Wars. An Emirati royal had traveled to the province to hunt houbara with his falcons, and bin Laden took shelter in the sheikh's camp. The agency considered launching cruise missiles at the camp to kill the terror leader, according to Coll. Had it not been for his royal friend, whom the CIA feared might also die in a strike, bin Laden might have ended up dead.

Instead, bin Laden's close call at the houbara hunting camp stands as a testament to one bird's role as an unlikely bit player in the struggle for South Asia. By virtue of the bird's appeal to the Gulf's falconers, some of whom also happened to be major supporters of the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, the houbara has repeatedly surfaced on both sides of the war on terror. Think of it as the bustardization of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

With the houbara all but hunted to extinction in the Gulf, oil sheiks have flocked to the deserts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the migratory houbara spends its winters and where Arab falconers spend millions of dollars each year to stage large hunts in the area, flying in tent cities and specially designed all-terrain SUVs for weeks at a time. These hunts have decimated the houbara population, leading the International Union for the Conservation of Wildlife to label it a vulnerable species, meaning it has lost a large proportion of its population and is approaching endangerment.

But that hasn't stopped the hunts: Last week, the Balochistan Forest and Wildlife Department reported that Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd spent three weeks in January near Chagai, Pakistan, during which time he killed 2,100 of the birds, including some poached from a wildlife preserve. Nevermind the fact that Pakistan has a placed a legal limit of 100 birds per hunter. That's no obstacle in the corrupt political and environmental disaster that is the contemporary Arab sport of kings.

Pakistanis are banned from killing the birds, which are thought to be an aphrodisiac, and Arab falconers have to obtain licenses to hunt the houbara. It is the most challenging game for trained falcons because of its speed and a defense reflex that involves vomiting a slimy excretion that can incapacitate falconers' birds of prey, each of which can cost in the neighborhood of $275,000. The bird's "meat [is] tough and stringy ... and left a bitter aftertaste," according to Mary Anne Weaver, who ate one of the birds as a guest on a houbara hunt, which she wrote about for the New Yorker in 1992.

Arab falconers had for centuries hunted houbaras in the Middle East. When those numbers began running low in the 1970s, they turned to South Asia. Many wound up cutting deals with Pakistan, where Gulf royals offered lavish gifts to Pakistani officials and wardens and leased swathes of prime houbara habitat. These "hunting fiefdoms are, in effect, Arab principalities," Weaver wrote. "They sprinkle the vast deserts of Balochistan, Punjab, and Sind, covering hundreds of miles." Prince Fahd's 2,100-bird haul this past January is not unusual: Falconers took home comparable numbers of birds after the hunts in the early 1990s, according to Weaver's account.

After escaping a U.S. cruise missile attack in August 1998, bin Laden fled to one of these camps. In February 1999, the CIA received intelligence that bin Laden was living in luxury at an Emirati houbara hunting camp in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The CIA monitored the camp for two weeks and nearly authorized a strike to take him out, according to Coll. Ultimately, fears that the strike might also kill the Emirati royal and spark a diplomatic crisis led the agency to scrap the plan.

But houbara hunting grounds haven't only provided shelter to bin Laden: They've also been useful to the CIA. To accommodate their C-130s filled with loads of tents, generators, air conditioners, SUVs, and houbara-tracking radar equipment, some Gulf royals built private airstrips in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That proved convenient for the CIA in 2001, when the United States began looking for air bases near Afghanistan where it could quietly set up shop. For a decade, the United States flew drones out of Shamsi airbase in Pakistan, which was built in the 1990s to facilitate falcon hunts.

When the Pakistani military disclosed that the United States had been flying drones out of Shamsi for years in the aftermath of the May 2011 raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, it provoked a public outcry and demands that U.S. forces be expelled from the country. But the Pakistani military claimed to be powerless to halt drone strikes launched from Shamsi. As detailed in Rachel Maddow's book Drift, the military claimed the base had been signed over to the United Arab Emirates for houbara hunting. (That arrangement lasted until December 2011, when, Emirati-controlled or not, the Pakistani government evicted U.S. forces from Shamsi.)

But the houbara might not always figure so prominently in the geopolitics of the region. Houbara hunting has reduced the bird's population dramatically. More than 20 years ago, Weaver quoted a retired Pakistani inspector general of forests who recalled that the houbara were once as plentiful as "butterflies in a field" before Balochistan became a vacation destination for wealthy falconers. A 2004 study estimated that the bird's population has decreased 35 percent since the mid-1980s, primarily on account of overhunting. Some progress has reportedly been made by an Emirati-financed houbara conservation organization, but the World Wildlife Fund noted in a statement that a comprehensive survey of the houbara population does not exist.

Pakistanis have met the reports of Prince Fahd's hunting spree with anger. "The prince's actions," columnist Faraz Talat wrote in Dawn, "are the equivalent of your house guest repaying your warm reception by playing cricket in your living room and grinning broadly as he poses for a picture next to a pile of broken furniture and fine china."

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China's Totally Misguided Campaign to Turn Working Women into Wifeys

China's government has some advice for the country's young, highly educated women: Get married early, or you'll regret it.

The official propaganda puts it more eloquently. "As women age, they are worth less and less," one government article reads. "So by the time they get their M.A. or Pd.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls."

Another article, published by Xinhua, the state news agency, bluntly demands that women stop being so picky and just settle down: "Does [the] perfect man exist? Maybe he does exist, but why on earth would he want to marry you?"

A better question is why China's leaders would want to push a generation of professional women back into the home at a time when Japan and South Korea are desperately trying to leverage the economic potential of women workers. At the World Economic Forum in January, for example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted that increasing women's labor participation could boost Japan's GDP by as much as 16 percent. Other studies suggest that restricting job opportunities for women costs Asia $46 billion a year.

The answer, argues sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, lies in the Chinese government's determination to maintain social order at all costs, a subject she explores in her forthcoming book, Leftover Women. The book's title refers to a pejorative term, sheng nu, used by the government to describe unmarried women in their mid- to late-20s. Fincher argues that the "leftover women" campaign -- comprised of media propaganda, mass matchmaking events, and bogus studies about the debilitating effects of singledom -- are one piece of a larger state effort to control women, and society, through economic and cultural means.

As Asian women have attained higher education levels and more economic opportunity, they have begun delaying marriage toward later in life. That trend hasn't yet reached China but, presumably, as Chinese women get more educated, they, too, will choose to focus on their careers and put off marriage. But that, Fincher argues, would undermine government population goals, and would -- according to one Xinhua report she cites --  "greatly [increase] the risk of social instability and insecurity." A surplus of young, unmarried men is evidently a dangerous prospect for an authoritarian state.

"There's no indication whatsoever that the government is concerned about losing talented women from the workforce," Fincher said in an interview. "China sees social stability as the bigger problem, because it threatens the fabric of the Communist Party... A harmonious family is the foundation of a harmonious society."

By Fincher's estimation, the campaign has been remarkably effective. Though Chinese women are more educated than ever before, the average marriage age hasn't increased over the past decade. And Chinese women -- at least the several hundred that Fincher interviewed -- are so anxious about becoming "leftover" that they're going to extraordinary lengths to get married, sometimes with virtual strangers.

The trend has facilitated an incredible transfer of wealth from women to men. It's customary in China for couples to pool their savings and buy a marital home even before they're married. But despite the fact that women contribute financially to 70 percent of marital homes, their names appear on only 30 percent of the deeds, according to recent studies cited by Fincher. "Chinese women," she writes, "have been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than $27 trillion in 2012."

The reasons for Chinese women's willingness to sign away their assets is partly cultural (marriages tend to be patriarchal) and partly legal, the consequence of regulations governing real estate transactions (listing two names can be both inconvenient and bureaucratically inefficient).

But the outcome is the same: According to a 2011 interpretation of China's marriage law cited by Fincher, marital property belongs entirely to the person whose name appears on the deed for the couple's home, regardless of whose money paid for it. That so many women go along with this scheme, is evidence, Fincher suggests, of how deeply women have internalized the sexist message of the "Leftover Women" campaign.

"These were women who were highly educated, very charismatic, very impressive -- and yet they were willing to transfer their life savings over to this boyfriend and put the home in the boyfriend or husband's name," Fincher said. "Many women actually want their name on the deed. But, in the end, she's unwilling to walk away from an unequal arrangement because she wants to be married."

That unequal arrangement manifests itself in a particularly sinister way for women who are the victims of domestic violence. Fincher argues that China's marriage campaign pushes women to get married too soon, to men they don't really know, which increases the risk of marrying someone who will physically abuse them. The fact that a husband is likely to own and control all marital assets, moreover, renders many women helpless to leave an abusive relationship.

But times are changing, whether the state likes it or not. "There's evidence that gender norms really are evolving among young men and women alike," Fincher said. "It's not just educated women who want more freedom and independence -- there are quite a few men who express that ideal for women as well."

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