DOHA (Reuters) - Every year the houbara bustard, a rare desert bird whose meat is prized by Arab sheikhs as an aphrodisiac, migrates from Central Asia to the far reaches of Iraq and Pakistan in search of a mild climate and a place to breed.
Its arrival sets off another migration - as scores of wealthy Gulf Arabs descend on Iraq to hunt the bird with trained falcons through the winter months.
But the kidnapping of 26 Qataris in December in the Iraqi desert while hunting, including members of the country’s royal family, has highlighted the risks of pursuing the “sport of kings” at a time of heightened regional turmoil.
No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which happened in a region dominated by Shi‘ite Muslim militia.
But what is clear is the immense wealth of Qatar and the Doha government’s past successes in freeing political prisoners in war zones has made its own citizens prey to those seeking to raise money or exploit the Gulf state’s diplomatic clout.
“The kidnapping of the Qatari hunters dealt a painful blow to the reputation of all the southern areas of Iraq,” said Abdul Rahman Hammoud, chief of the Iraqi Hunters Association in Samawa, where the Qataris were kidnapped.
“We are a tribal community and Gulf hunters are our guests. After the abduction, not a single hunter from the Gulf is coming to Iraq anymore, fearing from being kidnapped. It will take a long time to repair the damage and convince Gulf hunters to resume their Iraq trips,” he told Reuters.
It is perhaps the world’s most elaborate blood sport - cargo planes fly tents, luxury jeeps, and falcons worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into custom-built desert airstrips.
Mega-rich owners often keep their falcons in vast air-conditioned rooms and free-flying aviaries, and use helium-filled balloons and drones to train them at higher altitudes.
Local communities can benefit from the hobby, which has for decades seen Arab elites channel cash - via hunting permit fees and jobs - into remote corners of the Middle East and beyond.
To curry favor with local communities whose land they descend upon to pursue prey, the Arab hunters have also built roads, schools and mosques in places like Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Afghanistan’s Helmand, while residents also benefit from the international-standard airstrips that can spring up.
New four-wheel drive vehicles brought in for the hunting season are left behind as gifts for local leaders.
But critics say that hunting with falcons, a practice Arab nomads used to survive life in the desert, is today a reckless hobby that threatens the houbara, a dwindling species, and funnels money into areas controlled by militias.
The tradition of falconry is thought to date back thousands of years in the Middle East, and for centuries nomad hunters relied on falcons.
But rapid urbanization and population growth, fueled by the discovery of oil, swallowed the desert breeding grounds and habitats of falcons and their prey.
In the 1960s, falconers began to extend their hunting grounds into Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as countries like Azerbaijan, Mauritania and Morocco, to hunt in areas that cover thousands of square miles.
“It is dangerous,” said Mohammed al-Khater, a student at Qatar University who trains and breeds falcons in his spare time. “The hunters fly into hotspots because it’s where you find the most prey. It’s a risk - but then, it’s their passion.”
But the hunts have proved divisive.
The global houbara population is estimated at between 79,000 and 97,000, according to BirdLife International which lists the bird as “vulnerable”. It says the population has declined by a third or more over the last 20 years due to hunting and habitat loss.
A ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year banning hunting of the houbara - after complaints from conservationists that the bird was at risk of extinction - was overturned last month when the government argued it damaged relations with Gulf states, key investors in the country.
A senior Saudi prince and his entourage killed 2,100 houbara over 21 days during a hunt in 2014, according to an official report leaked to Pakistani news media.
Hunters say they breed houbara to replace those they kill and complain that the royal visits are being unnecessarily politicized.
Farooq Al-Elji, a falconer who works for the Al Gannas Society, a Qatari association of hunters, defended the practice.
“These people are falconers, you cannot take that away from them. Even if you take the trips away it is in their personality. Every human emotion is connected to being a falconer. It’s very deep-rooted,” he said.
“It’s a traditional trip, they like to maintain it to recapture the mood of being a survivor in the desert. That’s the beauty of it, its a wonderful vacation for them.”
But the vacation is over for now, at least in Iraq.
In the wake of the kidnappings, Colonel Mahmoud Abbas at Iraq’s interior ministry said Gulf citizens would no longer be able to secure visas “until further notice”.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Tom Finn; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Pravin Char