Captive-bred western tragopans have been soft-released into a forest in Himachal Pradesh, in a first such effort globally to reintroduce the vulnerable pheasant species back into the wild. Western tragopan, or Jujurana, is a brightly plumed bird endemic to northwest Himalaya, with an estimated global population of fewer than 3,500 individuals. It is also the state bird of Himachal.
Six birds raised in a pheasantry at Sarahan have been soft-released into the nearby Daranghati wildlife sanctuary, ie they have been shifted to the site of release and placed in temporary enclosures, or soft pens. A soft-release is a precursor to full release and helps the birds adapt to the area’s climate and environment. The site of release in the sanctuary is around 3,200 metres above the sea level while the elevation of the breeding centre at Sarahan is around 2,300 metres, with both places being part of western tragopan’s natural habitat.
The six birds, comprising two pairs and two chicks, are expected to be let out of the pens during the next few days, or during the upcoming wildlife week when an official event by state forest department will be held to mark the release.
The pheasants have also been tagged with very high frequency (VHF) radio devices, which will help a researcher monitor their location, movement and other parameters once they are out on their own.
According to wildlife officials, Himachal Pradesh has seven different species of pheasants (a group of large-sized, highly colourful birds which display sexual dimorphism) of which Western Tragopan is the most elusive one.
Sarahan pheasantry, or the Western Tragopan Conservation Breeding Centre, located at Sarahan in Shimla district is the only centre in the world where conservation breeding of the bird is being carried out, as per the wildlife wing of the state forest department. Besides the birds just released, it houses around 45 birds – up from 17 in 2007 when the Central Zoo Authority included the Western Tragopan in the priority list of species identified for conservation breeding.
The first attempts at keeping and breeding the species in captivity were carried out in the early 1990s, when the pheasantry was a small rescue centre. In 1993, a male chick was born to a pair of wild-born rescued birds, which according to the World Pheasant Association, was the only western tragopan hatched in captivity anywhere in the world in the 20th century.
Currently, the captive population is housed in enclosures and breeding aviaries which try to recreate natural surroundings of the species, and the birds are fed a diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, greens, seed mix, a small amount of egg and occasionally wild items collected from the natural habitat such as berries. The management of the centre is science-based and overseen by a zoo biologist.
HP also runs a captive breeding centre for another pheasant species, the cheer pheasant, and 18 cheer phesants were reintroduced into the wild last year, out of which at least eight have survived so far.
Western tragopan and cheer pheasant are among the 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. The other three species are the Steppe Eagle, Slender-billed Vulture and West Himalayan Bush Warbler.
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