Facing existential crisis, Western Tragopan sees a glimmer of hope in Himachal Pradesh for its survival 

The next challenge, experts and officials feel, is to successfully reintroduce the western tragopans into their natural habitat in the wild, which is a stiff task.

Updated - July 31, 2023 10:47 am IST

Published - July 31, 2023 07:45 am IST - CHANDIGARH

A captive-bred Western Tragopan (Tragopan-melanocephalus) at Sarahan pheasantry, the conservation breeding centre for western tragopan in Himachal Pradesh. 

A captive-bred Western Tragopan (Tragopan-melanocephalus) at Sarahan pheasantry, the conservation breeding centre for western tragopan in Himachal Pradesh.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Himachal Pradesh’s State bird – Western Tragopan (Tragopan-melanocephalus) – has been facing habitat loss in parts of the country. But because of authorities’ efforts, there has been a gradual increase in the population of this rare species at the State’s Sarahan pheasantry, the conservation breeding centre, bringing a glimmer of hope for its survival and growth.

While the breeding of the elusive bird in captivity has been a success as its population has steadily gone up over the past two decades. The next challenge, experts and officials feel, is to successfully reintroduce the western tragopans into their natural habitat in the wild, which is a stiff task. The bird has a disjunct distribution in the northwest Himalayas from north Pakistan (Indus-Kohistan district) to India, including Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, and the western parts of Uttarakhand.

The Sarahan pheasantry in Shimla has over the years seen successful captive breeding of western tragopan, which faces threats due to habitat loss, hunting, and other anthropogenic factors. According to Himachal Pradesh Wildlife Wing’s latest report, “Western Tragopan Biannual Report 2020-2022”, the population of the bird, which was two in 2002, reached 45 individuals in 2022. Currently, it is 47. 

“Earlier this month in July, four tragopans were born at the pheasantry. We are expecting more as the breeding season is still underway. During the past five-seven years on average seven to eight chicks are breeding. We now have 47 birds including the new-born, which is the largest number of captivity breed stock globally. This vindicates the success of the captive-breeding programme,” Ashok Negi, Divisional Forest Officer (wildlife division) at Sarahan told The Hindu.

Mr. Negi added after the successful captive-breeding programme, the wildlife wing has now been taking steps towards restoring this bird in the wild through a reintroduction programme.

“In 2019, the plan for reintroduction in the wild was approved by the Himachal Pradesh Zoos and Conservation Breeding Society. Following this, four families (four males, four females) and a few chicks were released in two phases, one in 2020 and the other in 2021 in the Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary in the vicinity of the pheasantry. They were tagged with tracking devices and their survival in the natural habitats was monitored. While others perished one had not perished on record. It’s a fair success as per international scientific standards. The release and monitoring have helped us to learn on the habitat selection, behavioural patterns, and climatic impact on the reintroduced birds, survival of birds from the predators, which will be helpful in the future release,” he said

“Now, we are planning to release two more bird families in the wild by the end of this year,” he said.

Western Tragopan, being a habitat specialist, is threatened by habitat loss and anthropogenic disturbances, which includes livestock grazing, minor forest produce collection like medicinal herbs etc, besides the change in land-use practices.

According to the State’s wildlife wing’s report, hunting pressure has also contributed greatly towards the dwindling of the tragopan population. As a consequence, the natural populations are small, highly fragmented and declining due to habitat loss and an overall reduction in the quality of the available habitat throughout its restricted range. Birdlife International (2020) projects the global population to be around 3,000 individuals. All these compounding factors, along with the increasing fragmentation of the population, have led to their inclusion under ‘Vulnerable’ (VU) category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data list.

The wildlife wing of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, the Himachal Pradesh Zoo and Conservation Breeding Society and the Sarahan wildlife division, have been making efforts conservation and to reintroduce this rare and endangered species into its natural habitat.

As the reintroduction programme of the rare bird is advancing, the challenges are huge, points out Dr. Savita, the former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (wildlife) in Himachal Pradesh.

“First of all, western tragopan being an endemic bird, there is little detail surrounding how their behaviour affects their ability to survive and reproduce. Secondly, to school, these captive-bred birds to hunt in the wild and upskill them to save themselves from predators is a daunting task. Before releasing them in the wild, they are given training as a part of ‘soft release’, but making them survive in the wild without being fed, besides protecting them from predators is not at all easy. Also, once released in the wild, tracking tragopans in their habitat, which ranges to a confined altitudinal area between 2,500 metres to 4,000 metres in the upper temperate cliffy region of Himalayas with dense undergrowth, is another big challenge.”

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