Eight of 18 cheer pheasants — released in a forest in rural Shimla last year in an ongoing effort to reintroduce the highly threatened, ground-dwelling Himalayan bird into its natural habitat — have survived nearly ten months in the wild.
Himachal Pradesh runs an exclusive captive breeding centre for cheer pheasants near Chail. Last October, three families of the bird from the facility were introduced into soft-release pens at a site between Seri and Undala villages of Dharbhog panchayat in Shimla rural tehsil.
Soft-release pens are enclosed wild spaces which act as a precursor to an actual release into the wild. The 18 birds originally released included 12 chicks and 6 adults from three different families.
Thirteen pheasants survived the soft-release and were subsequently introduced into the forest. The adults were fitted with identification rings and very high frequency (VHF) collars for tracking and monitoring.
Eight of those pheasants, including three adults, have survived so far, according to the wildlife wing of the state forest department.
“The surviving birds are healthy and have adapted well to their new surroundings. In fact, a couple laid eggs this breeding season (April to June),” said Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden Dr Savita. She said that a researcher regularly monitors the birds at the site.
Officials plan to release four more families of the bird this October. The breeding centre at Khadiyun near Chail, located in a wildlife sanctuary which is also the natural habitat of the cheer pheasant, currently has 75 birds being raised in seven enclosures.
One of the reasons the birds were released in Seri, around 30 km away, was because the area deity is believed to be against hunting of wildlife, a wildlife official said.
Hunting has been a major threat to the bird, along with forest fires, grazing and fodder collection. “However, in recent years, hunting here has drastically declined due to growing awareness regarding the importance of the bird and its vulnerability,” the official said.
Cheer pheasants, locally called chaidh, dwell in a grassland habitat combined with short trees and shrubs in elevations between 1,500-3,000 metres. They are found in Pakistan, India and Nepal, and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), their global population dipped to less than 2,700 birds, due to human disturbances and other factors.
Himachal Pradesh is one area where a majority of the remaining wild populations still survive. Some important Cheer Pheasant areas in the state include Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary, Chail Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhaila-Chonri area, Seri and isolated areas in Chamba, Rampur and Kullu, according to the IUCN.
The breeding centre at Khadiyun has been operational since around 1990, and was previously also used for breeding the Red Jungle Fowl and the Kalij Pheasant. Around ten years ago, it was dedicated exclusively to the cheer pheasant.
The 75 birds at the centre are mostly offspring of five ‘old pairs’, one of which, named ‘Raja-Raani’ has been the most fertile. Pheasants can live for more than 10 years in captivity, and one bird lived for around 16 years, an official said.
The bird’s daily diet includes 150 grams of fruits and vegetables, 150 grams of grains, soyabean, and mineral mixture.
The Steppe Eagle, Slender-billed Vulture, Cheer Pheasant, West Himalayan Bush Warbler and Himachal’s state bird Western Tragopan are five species of birds from the state which were listed under species of a high conservation concern by ‘State of India’s Birds 2020’, a report released earlier this year.
Himachal also has a captive breeding centre for state bird Western Tragopan at Sarahan, and the first-ever release of birds from the centre is scheduled for September this year.
About the Cheer Pheasant
Local Name: Chaidh
Scientific Name: Catreus Wallichii
Natural habitat: Parts of northwestern and central Himalayas (Pakistan, India, Nepal); forest, shrubland and grassland
Breeding season: April-June
Global population: less than 2,700
Status: ‘Vulnerable’ in IUCN Red List, ‘Schedule I’ in The Wildlife Protection Act
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