QUETTA, Pakistan - A Saudi prince is on a hunting spree for rare birds in southwest Pakistan despite a court-imposed ban and the government's insistence that the foreign delegation is only on a diplomatic mission, senior officials said Monday.
The annual hunt has sparked controversy in recent years because of the Houbara Bustard's dwindling numbers, with the issue also shining a spotlight on traditionally close ties between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature includes the bird on its 'red list' of threatened species, estimating there are fewer than 97,000 left globally.
A provincial High Court in Baluchistan in November last year cancelled all permits for hunting in the province before the arrival of the Saudi prince and his companions, but since reaching Pakistan last week the party has been allowed to hunt unimpeded, three officials have confirmed to AFP.
The provincial government has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the ban to seek a formal permission for the Royal guests to hunt, but the hearing has not been fixed.
A senior provincial government official said that the Saudi governor and his companions "had arrived Dalbandin (district) for hunting Houbara Bustard and it is confirmed that these dignitaries started hunting on Thursday".
A second official in the paramilitary Balochistan Levies and an official at the forest department also confirmed that they were aware of the hunting.
"Arab dignitaries are engaged in hunting Houbara Bustard but our staff are not allowed to have access to their camp or accompany the hunting party. There is no knowledge that how many birds have been hunted," the official said.
The government for its part has denied that the Saudi party is engaged in hunting, saying that they had come to oversee development activities.
"They have other kind of activities like inspecting Arab-funded development schemes and meeting tribal elders of the area as part of good will", minister for forest and wildlife Obaidullah Babat, told reporters last week.
The issue has stirred controversy on social media and among youth activists in the restive province, where a separatist insurgency has been simmering since 2004 and many are critical of the government's policies, including its ties to ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
Up to 40 youth activists from Chaghi district protested in front of Quetta Press Club against the hunting of Houbara Bastard on Friday.
They chanted slogans against the provincial government and demanded the expulsion of the Arab hunting parties from the province.