In 2001, the Indian Central Zoo Authority organised a pheasant conservation breeding workshop for all Indian zoos in the Morni Hills in Haryana State. WPA devised and delivered the teaching programme. Over subsequent years, this curriculum for this workshop has been expanded and updated, and now consists of 20 teaching modules. It has been translated into a number of different languages so that zoos and other organisations involved in breeding endangered galliformes can improve their skills and knowledge.

Western tragopan – State bird of Himachal Pradesh

In Himachal Pradesh a rescue centre was established nearly 25 years ago for the Western Tragopan at Sarahan, a small village in the Himalayas, but breeding success with this mountain species was very limited. Indeed, only one Western tragopan was hatched in captivity anywhere in the world in the 20th century – a male at Sarahan in 1993. Previous efforts to breed this species had indicated that it did not survive well once it was outside its mountain environment, so WPA worked with the Himachal Pradesh Wildlife Division and the Central Zoo Authority to formulate a strategy to breed this species successfully within its home range in order that dwindling numbers in the wild might be reinforced if this proves necessary in the future.

WPA provided much training for the Indian officers involved in this conservation breeding programme and gradually skills, facilities and diet were improved and some breeding successes were achieved. The long-term aim has always been to parent-rear birds and this year all the females in the breeding programme attempted parent-rearing. New aviaries, designed by wildlife officers from Himachal have been designed and these offer much improved facilities for the birds.

Cheer Pheasant – Himachal Pradesh

At the turn of the century in Himachal Pradesh, a small breeding programme existed for the threatened Cheer pheasant near Chail. Officers from the Wildlife Division, working with WPA, determined to improve the breeding programme and facilities for these Cheer pheasants and after training and aviary improvements, the birds began to rear their own young. Further research into the background of the founder stock eventually indicated that they probably all originated from one brother/sister pair in the 1980s, so any birds bred from this programme were unlikely to be of use to any future reintroduction programme.

A number of birds had been rescued from the local wild stock during recent years and some eggs from wild nests were also brought to the aviary, hatched and parent-reared by the inbred Cheer. So a new founder stock of wild origins was established and the inbred birds were re-located to other Indian zoos. New aviaries were designed on the site of the original breeding centre and these aviaries represent possibly the best pheasant breeding aviaries in the world. Seven hexagonal aviaries were constructed, each more than 300m2. The hexagonal design provides numerous corners for the hens to nest naturally and the environment within these extremely large aviaries replicates much of what the birds would experience in the wild. All seven pairs within these amazing facilities immediately began to parent-rear young successfully and in the past 2 years, more than 60 young birds have been reared and are available if reintroduction is required. 47 closed circuit video cameras have also been installed to that the behaviour of these birds can be studied by researchers anywhere in the world if required, without any need to disturb the birds.

Forest Guards and Wildlife Officers who work closely with the Cheer pheasants in the wild in Himachal Pradesh all observe that the behaviour and calling of the birds in the breeding programme are very similar to their wild cousins, and the video taken within the aviaries provides similar evidence. Himachal Wildlife Division has already located areas where Cheer pheasants previously existed and where some trial reintroductions might be attempted to establish protocols for any future reintroduction programmes.

Other species in India

In 2008, the Indian Government through its Central Zoo Authority, determined that conservation breeding programmes should be established for all of its most threatened wildlife species to ensure their continued survival over the next 100 years. IUCN’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group was strongly involved in establishing this policy and 13 pheasant species were identified within the overall strategy.

Following our involvement with the Western Tragopan and Cheer pheasant programmes in Himachal Pradesh, WPA was asked to help with the pheasant conservation breeding programmes throughout India. In 2009, the Central Zoo Authority convened a Conservation Breeding Workshop in Darjeeling for all Indian Zoos, Wildlife Departments and the Wildlife Institute, and much information regarding the present state of India’s threatened pheasant species was collated. WPA was asked to assist with a number of new programmes, including for Himalayan Monal (Himachal), Red Junglefowl (Haryana), Hume’s Pheasant (Mizoram), Satyr and Temminck’s tragopans (Darjeeling), Blyth’s tragopan (Nagaland and Mizoram) and Grey peacock pheasant (Assam). WPA has provided workshops for the majority of these new programmes.

In addition, particular advice was sought from WPA about how to establish conservation breeding programmes for tragopan species where previous attempts had usually resulted in wild-caught birds dying from stress. WPA, working closely with its members and the EAZA Galliformes TAG, was asked to send captive birds from Europe to establish an initial breeding programme in India for Satyr and Temminck’s tragopans. The aim of this programme was to avoid taking more birds from the wild and for the Darjeeling staff to learn how to breed tragopans using existing European birds. WPA has provided much training to accompany this programme. When the “European” birds are parent-rearing successfully, the aim is to translocate some eggs from wild Indian nests to be incubated and raised by the “European” birds, and these young will become the founder members of the future Indian breeding programmes for these two species.

Two groups of Satyr & Temminck’s tragopans were quarantined by Paradise Wildlife Park and The Highland Wildlife Park and have been sent to Darjeeeling, and the first of these started to breed this year. Some marvellous new aviaries have been constructed in an off-site facility to establish this breed programme.

Indian pheasants in the wild

In the Great Himalayan National Park, the Wildlife Division has recently started monitoring its wild pheasants using camera traps. Some amazing video and photos have been acquired, including sightings of the Western Tragopan, which has probably only once been filmed in the wild previously. This amazing photo of a Western tragopan in the wild has been provided by Mr. Ashwanii Gulaati, Chief Wildlife Warden of Himachal Pradesh.

John G Corder January 2014