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More than 70 falcons seized by authorities die trapped in Pakistan’s justice system

KARACHI: In October 2020, Pakistani customs officials told local media they had seized 75 falcons and a houbara bustard from suspected smugglers in two separate raids in Karachi, bringing the value of the birds to over $1 million .
Sixteen months later, 71 of the 76 birds are dead after a saga of lengthy trials in multiple courts, legal and interdepartmental wrangling over the fate of the birds, and a failure by authorities to provide them with suitable habitat since the confiscation.
On October 21, 2020, five days after the birds were seized by Pakistani customs, a customs court rejected the argument that the case involved smuggling, saying the birds were not seized at a point of entering or leaving the country. However, the court acknowledged the episode was a violation of a provincial wildlife law passed in 2020 and ruled the birds would remain in the custody of Pakistan Customs. The case was then referred to a Magistrate Court, which was ordered by the High Court of Sindh on March 11, 2021.
Javed Mehar, curator at Sindh’s wildlife department, told Arab News that the department had submitted a document to the magistrate’s court, calling for a “summary trial” under relevant laws to ensure the birds can be immediately removed. released.
“If there is a delay, there is a greater chance of (their) mortality,” the document, viewed by Arab News, said.
During the trial court hearings, the owners of the birds produced licenses issued by the chairman of the Wildlife Management Board. The court accepted the legal ownership claim and ruled in favor of the owners on May 31, a decision that was appealed by the wildlife and customs departments. Therefore, despite the favorable decision, the birds were not released.
Aslam Gabol, who owned 55 of the 76 birds, said his family had been trading birds “legally” for decades.
“Customs and Magistrate Courts have ruled in our favor because we have presented all the facts, we are openly trading these birds under government license and it is completely legal,” Gabol said. at Arab News. “We hadn’t kept the birds in a hidden place and we never hid our business because we got a proper license every year…and kept its record.”
Gabol said his family usually buys the birds from Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, as well as Afghanistan, and sells them to overseas customers, mostly in the Middle East.
A second owner, Basheer Buledi, said his family had been in the business since 1972.
“We trade the falcons according to the law and have kept them at the same address as mentioned on the permit,” Buledi told Arab News. “If it had been an illegal business or if we were doing it in secret, I wouldn’t have kept the birds in my house.”
Buledi said the courts’ decision was “testimony to the fact that we did not do anything illegal”.
He asked, “How can this be a case of smuggling when the birds were not seized at any air or sea port or at Sindh’s border with another province?
However, Mehar cited a directive from the Department of Forestry and Wildlife under which all new licenses were banned and old ones terminated on February 11, 2019. This directive was appealed and dismissed. by the High Court of Sindh and therefore maintained Mehar, there was no law under which the owners of the birds could be in possession of their permits.
Mehar also said the Wildlife Management Board has been gone since 1996 and has not been allowed to issue permits since. There was also no provision authorizing hunting or possession licenses under the new 2020 Wildlife Act, he said.
Sardar Muhammad Usman Almani, chairman of the Sindh Wildlife Management Board and its chief game warden, said that while he had issued private game and mini zoo licenses under the Ordinance of 1972 on Sindh Wildlife Protection, he did not ‘remember’ signing a possession permit after assuming office in May 2019.
When shown a copy of the licenses submitted by the owners of the birds to court, Almani said he would check his records but did not return with an answer.
Eight months after the judgment in favor of the owners of the birds, the High Court has yet to hear the appeal lodged by Customs and Wildlife Services.
But even as the trial dragged on, customs and wildlife officials, along with the Pakistan Falconry Association, said they had made a last-ditch effort to save the birds by moving them to the area. cooler in northern Gilgit-Baltistan. Their attempts, however, proved futile as the court did not grant permission.
In March last year, Kamran Khan Yousafzai, who heads the PFA and the Raptor Center for Rehabilitation and Conservation, wrote to Pakistan’s climate change ministry that the birds should be moved to Gilgit-Baltistan because their survival was difficult to Karachi.
“The weather is getting hot and rising in Karachi, and the falcons are facing extreme dehydration,” Yousufzai wrote in his letter. “It becomes impossible to maintain the health of falcons at high temperatures. The delay in the process of releasing the falcons poses an increased threat to their survival.
“Falcons cannot survive temperatures above 34C,” Yousafzai told Arab News, adding that the ministry had also agreed to the proposal to relocate the birds.
“However, the court did not allow customs or the ministry to move the birds to Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said, and so the birds remained in Karachi, where they died one by one.
Legal experts say reform is needed to ensure the situation does not happen again.
Salahuddin Ahmed, a legal expert and president of the Sindh High Court Bar Association, said he believed Pakistani laws regarding the storage of case assets – in this case confiscated birds – should be updates.
“Keeping animals that long is pointless,” he said. “Forget the animals, I often see cars rusting during trials just because they are the property of the case.”
Iftikhar Khan, the customs intelligence officer who seized the birds, said the lengthy legal process had not only resulted in the death of the falcons, but would now discourage officers from pursuing the smugglers in the future.
“Hundreds of falcons are traded on the Pakistani black market,” he said, “but who is going to raid now? Any raid against such smugglers will result in the killing of birds. This is the lesson we draw from this story.

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