6 min read

Afghan Police Shoot Rare Bird They Thought Had A Bomb

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/35142635@N05/6273327518/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">S. Rae/Flickr/CC BY 2.0</a></p>

Fearing that the Taliban had begun weaponizing wildlife, Afghan police in Faryab Province shot a bird wearing a "small antenna and suspicious device," NBC News reported. Upon being hit, the bird "exploded," according to police chief Abdul Nabi Ilham. In an unfortunate twist for all involved, the bird appears to be a vulnerable species called a houbara bustard, rarely seen in Afghanistan. Officials collected what they think are traces of a GPS tracker, not an actual bomb, from the bird.

Though it would mark the first time a Taliban conscript had feathers, there's a long, strange history of enlisting animals in war. Not only have combatants ridden horses or relied on dogs to sniff out bombs, but in World War II, the U.S. military also trained pigeons to pilot simulated missiles, and they strapped actual bombs to bats (neither project was implemented). War dolphins are a more recent - and controversial - phenomenon, with Russia seizing trained Ukrainian cetaceans in March.

But in the mysterious case of the exploding fowl, the devices seem more in line with what conservationists would use to keep track of rare species rather than military or incendiary technology. Amid the feathers and electronic wreckage, the NBC video shows a tag labeled "ECCH," which, as Inquistr noted, is an acronym for Emirates Center for Conservation of Houbara. (The ECCH did not immediately respond to a call for comment.)

(Credit: NBCNews)

Based in Uzbekistan, the ECCH works to conserve the houbara bustard. The rare bustard is threatened by falconers who sell the animal parts to be used as a kind of aphrodisiac; estimates put the bird population somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 birds, though the IUCN notes that bird numbers in Kazakhstan fell by as much as 36 percent in the past decade. As one Pakistani activist put it, "Is there any more ridiculous reason to kill an animal?"

Beyond hunters' falcons (and, possibly, cautious Afghan police), houbara bustards also face the guns of Saudi princes. But there have been two recent bright notes for the bustard: Pakistan moved to protect the species, and a United Arab Emirates sheikh released 2,000 captive-bred bustards into the Kazakh wilds in May.

UPDATE 10:30 a.m. 12/2 - The Emirates Center for Conservation of Houbara has confirmed this is an Asian houbara bustard. In an email to The Dodo, Adeline Cadet, ECCH's operations manager, wrote:

This bird killed by Afghani police is part of a captive breeding program managed by the NGO ECCH based in the republic of Uzbekistan.

This bird is a male that was bred during the season 2014 and was released on the 15th September 2014 near the city of Navoi in Uzbekistan. The bird was equipped with a GPS-PTT transmitter, ID 140808 from Microwave Telemetry, in order to monitor its movement as part of a scientific program studying the migration of the houbara bustard species.

For information, the houbara male is about 2 kg [4.4 lbs], the GPS – transmitter is about 30g. Looking at videos and pictures, anyone can find out that this bird did not experience a "considerable explosion."