Shimla: Four years after the first release of Cheer Pheasants, a threatened species of birds under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in Himachal Pradesh, the project has achieved its first milestone: It has established founding pairs or resident breeding pairs in Seri village, the first site for the threatened birds’ release. The pairing of a male bird with a wild female was also observed.

As per 2020 estimates by the IUCN, only 2,700 Cheer Pheasants were left in the wild in India, Nepal and Pakistan. It is a highly protected species under Schedule-I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Action, 1972, falling under the category of “rare and endangered species which are totally protected”.

The species is generally found in grassland habitats with shrubs and short trees at an altitude of 1,500-3,000 metres. They nest in steep cliffs and breed during April-June. The female lays up to 12 eggs which are incubated for nearly a month. Both male and female birds take care of the chicks till the next breeding season, during which period the young are taught survival techniques such as finding food, avoiding predators and surviving the winter season. The species is generally found in grasslands with pine forests, which are prone to fires in the summers.

The birds were first released by the state’s wildlife department four years ago, on October 3, 2019, in Seri village in Darbhog panchayat of Shimla district as part of the Wildlife Week 2019 celebrations, a week-long festival to celebrate and raise awareness about wildlife conservation. Cheer Pheasants are found in Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary, Chail Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhaila-Chonri area, Seri, and Rampur in Shimla district, and in isolated areas in Chamba and Kullu districts of Himachal Pradesh.

The species is currently being bred in captivity in an exclusive breeding centre at Khadiyun in the Chail area of Shimla district, from where they were released in Seri village. The breeding centre was established in 2008 as the number of Cheer Pheasants dwindled in the state, and is being operated as per suggestions of the IUCN and is recognised by the Indian Central Zoo Authority.

“Currently, there are 64 birds kept in 15 pans (enclosures) at the breeding centre where they are being kept before soft release and predator training at Shilli Mehla, the new site for their release,” said Anoop (he uses only one name), who is in-charge of the Chail Breeding Centre.

IndiaSpend spoke to the officials steering the project and other experts about this exercise and how it could be replicated for conservation of other threatened birds.

A camera trap image shows Cheer Pheasants at Seri village in 2021. Image shared by the Himachal Pradesh forest department

Why numbers had dwindled

Samakshi Tiwari, who was lead author of a 2022 paper, ‘Call Count Survey as a Tool to Monitor Habitats Occupied by Cheer Pheasants (Catreus 2 Wallichii) in Shimla’, says that the main reason for the drop in number of the species is wildfires, hunting and loss of grasslands due to construction of dams.

Tiwari, who worked as a research assistant of the reintroduction project until July 2021, said a study conducted in 1981, based on visual sightings and call records of the species from all over Himachal Pradesh, had pegged the population at 1,000 pairs in the wild, and a 1980 study estimated around 40 pairs in the Chail wildlife sanctuary.

Locally, the species is threatened by habitat fragmentation, nest predation by dogs, hunting, and submergence of key habitats for hydroelectric projects, the study found. “Other pheasant species endemic to the Himalayas are found in inaccessible high-altitude areas and treacherous terrains. Therefore, they are less threatened by anthropogenic pressures. In contrast, Cheer Pheasants are more prone to such pressures as they are associated with human-use landscapes. Further, the distribution of the species is patchy because of which they are predisposed to local extinction,” the study said.

The species requires proximity to human habitation for its survival--it is dependent on human activity for foraging, and its diet includes crop and tree residue. But development activities such as construction of roads, modernisation and poaching are major hindrances to sustaining their numbers in the wild. Leopard, fox and yellow-throated marten are the main predators in the wild for the species, Sharma explained.

Survival rate in the wild satisfactory

Himachal Pradesh’s Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Wildlife, N. Ravishankar Sharma said since the Cheer Pheasant Breeding and Reintroduction Project began, the species has been released in the wild thrice. “The main object of the Project is to establish two to three breeding pairs in a particular area that was its habitat in the past, and then move on to the next site.”

As per the state’s forest surveys, the survival rate of Cheer Pheasants released in the wild is around 22% to 25%.

“The World Pheasant Association pegs the survival of captive birds released in the wild at 20%, so we are satisfied with our progress so far,” said Sharma. “After its release in the wild, we have recorded two to three pairs in the Seri reintroduction site and four or five pairs in the adjoining Shimla Water Catchment Area Wildlife Sanctuary.” Darbhog panchayat up-pradhan Joginder Singh told this reporter that the number of birds and sightings has increased in Seri village after the Cheer Pheasant reintroduction.

At present, the Forest Department is planning to restock the Cheer Pheasant population by capturing the birds from the wild and incubating them with the existing species at the breeding centre.

The department will also discuss plans to conduct a statewide survey to assess the number of the birds in the state, so the reintroduction plan could be devised accordingly. A further 12 birds were transported to a new release site at Shilli Mehla near Theog in Shimla, around 44 km, two weeks ago, and they are currently kept in soft pans for survival training. They will be released into the wild by mid November.

The way forward

Sharma, the state’s forest official, said the intensive monitoring and call count survey points towards the increase in the number of species in the Seri release site, which is a major milestone for the captive breeding programme.

Tiwari said there was good support from the locals for the project. Since they do not offer animal sacrifice to the local deity, it was easy to dissuade them from hunting the threatened birds, she explained. Further, during their study, they had also witnessed pairing of captive birds with wild ones and one of them had even laid fertile eggs. But the birds had died before the eggs could hatch. The approach to shift the location after establishing three to four founding pairs could help in increasing the numbers, as one pair can cover or have territory in one sq km area in one year, she explained.

Sharma, the forest official, said the learnings from this project can be applied to other pheasant species such as the Western Tragopan and Red Junglefowl. The constant monitoring, and setting up camera traps to dissuade people from hunting as well as awareness and involvement of locals was the key for success of the programme, he explained.

“Before introducing the birds in the wild, we first carried out a soft release at the proposed release site where the forest department systematically introduced the birds for wild diet and they were also given training for survival in the habitat,” he said, adding these were the key factors for the success of the project.

Rahul Kaul, chief ecologist at the Wildlife Trust of India, said this successful reintroduction of the Cheer Pheasant is a first for India. Kaul, who has a PhD on the ecology of the Cheer Pheasant and ran the South Asia Field Office of the World Pheasant Association for 13 years, said the officials leading the project should be sent to other states to train staff involved in the breeding or conservation of Cheer Pheasants and other pheasant species. The general pattern for reintroduction of other pheasant species is similar even as the needs for their breeding and release are different, he added.

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