The handsome bird struts from one end of its perch to another, its bright red plume glistening in the morning sun . The jhujhurana, as it is locally called, or the King of Birds, cocks his head from side to side surveying his home enriched with dried moss and fern. As real estate goes for tragopans, this is one of the best, a naturalistic enclosure that imitates the bird’s wild surroundings. The aim is for breeding pairs to lay enough eggs to support the next generation of the species in the wild. The population of the western tragopan, the State bird of Himachal Pradesh, has seen a drastic decline, which is why the Saharan centre, a few hours from Shimla, was set up to boost its population.
Wildlife filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria, who has documented the story, was impressed by the hard work put in by the caretakers of the facility. “Given how elusive and shy this bird is, it is quite incredible what the team has managed to achieve,” she says. On last count, there were more than 45 birds at the centre. Six of them, raised in the pheasantry, were soft-released into the nearby Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary last October. But there’s a long way to go: the ultimate goal of all conservation breeding is to establish a stable population of the threatened animal or bird in the wild. The habitat of this bird continues to suffer from various threats such as fragmentation, grazing by livestock, tree-lopping, and poaching, and there is no evidence to suggest that these issues were adequately addressed before releasing the birds into the wild.
In neighbouring Haryana, another conservation breeding project is underway. For scientist Vibhu Prakash, who first noticed the steep decline in vulture populations, life has come full circle. It has been almost two decades since he moved from Mumbai to set up the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre in Pinjore, from where eight birds were released last October. Starting with just a few pairs of rescued vultures, the centre today houses more than 378 birds that include the slender-billed vulture, white-backed vulture and long-billed vulture.
Prakash too opted for a soft release of the eight birds from a pre-release aviary where they were kept for seven to eight months to encourage their interaction with vultures in the wild. In soft releases, explains Prakash, the birds are released after they become familiar with the surroundings and interact with wild birds, helping them to join flocks and fly away. This greatly increases their chances of survival after release.
One of the released vultures died of electrocution and another flew up to the mountains, but it grew weak and subsequently died. Prakash observed that the released vultures gradually increased their flying and soaring time as well as distance, but were not able to have a sustained flight with their wild counterparts. With variants of diclofenac [a cattle drug that’s toxic to vultures that consume carcasses] still existing in farmlands, “we need to be extra cautious,” says Prakash, which is why releasing the captive-bred birds in large numbers remains risky until every single variant of the killer drug has been removed.
Limited human contact
In the sand dunes of Rajasthan, another captive breeding project is underway, involving the great Indian bustard (GIB), but it is as shrouded in secrecy as India’s nuclear programme. In order to boost populations of this critically endangered bird, six eggs were collected at the Jaisalmer centre to create a founder population, and a chick was successfully hatched artificially in 2019. Human contact is limited and the keepers are tight-lipped about passing on any information.
Sutirtha Dutta from the Wildlife Institute of India explains, “This is an extremely difficult bird to deal with; it is heavy, a slow breeder, and extremely sensitive to human presence, so the challenges are many when it comes to breeding them in captivity”. But there is unmissable joy in his voice when he describes the moment the first chick was hatched in captivity. “There is no doubt that conservation breeding has created a sense of hope for all of us when it comes to the GIB,” he says. But as with the other birds, for the bustard too, their habitat continues to be rife with threats such as power lines.
So, is there any point in spending two decades breeding birds in captivity if the threats to their habitat do not abate? Dutta is optimistic, and emphasises that their plan is focused not just on breeding but also on working closely with the forest department to mitigate threats. “We need to do both ex-situ and in-situ conservation,” he says.
Setting up a breeding centre and releasing a captive-bred creature into the wild is good optics, it allows policymakers to show that they have are ‘managing’ the problem. But conservation breeding cannot address the primary issue of declining habitats, which caused the problem in the first place. IUCN guidelines clearly state that a species should not be reintroduced till the reason why they went into a decline has been addressed in that location.
Conservation breeding is time-consuming and expensive. Prakash is concerned about the funds needed to manage the vulture breeding centre: the Royal Society for Protection of Birds has reduced its funding due to the pandemic, and government funds have also been drastically cut. While money is made available for creating the infrastructure, the later challenge of managing these centres, which includes feeding the animals and salaries for caretakers, is not adequately addressed.
If there is one conservation breeding programme that has stood the test of time and managed to establish a significant population in the wild, it’s that of the smallest pig in the world — the pygmy hog. Set up in Assam by the world famous Jersey Zoo (now referred to as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), the breeding facility releases as many as 15 animals into the wild every year and has so far released 145 pigs. But here too, the habitat of the pygmy hog is under constant threat.
Setting up camera traps in the sites where the pygmy hogs are released has enabled the team to gather documentary evidence that the animals are indeed breeding in the wild. Parag Deka, a veterinarian and project manager, and his colleague, Goutam Narayan, have dedicated their lives to bringing this relatively unknown mammal back from the brink.
One of the biggest threats to the pygmy hog is the removal of grasslands. By working closely with the forest department in places such as Orang and Manas national parks in Assam, they have been able to make sure to some extent that the grasslands are not burnt during the breeding season of the pygmy hog.
How have conservation breeding projects fared in other parts of the world? The California condor is a classic example of a magnificent vulture that made a comeback from the edge of extinction. The DDT pesticide had nearly wiped out its population, but an intense breeding programme has returned more than 300 birds to the wild.
The oryx, an antelope with long, straight horns and distinct facial markings, once found all over the Arabian Peninsula, has become the poster child for breeding programmes. The antelope had been hunted to near-extinction till a successful captive breeding programme coupled with a ban on hunting helped revive its population in the wild.
Today, more than a thousand oryx roam the wild and the species has been reintroduced in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE.
The question is, given all the money spent on breeding animals in captivity, would it not be wiser to secure their habitats instead? Even in the case of the gharial, there are few studies to prove that the decades of captive breeding have made a significant impact on populations. In fact, a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology notes the importance of ‘field-based protection measures, which are essential in the face of threats like hydrologic diversions, sand-mining, fishing, and bankside cultivation’.
M.K. Ranjitsinh Jhala, who has been instrumental in shaping India’s wildlife policies, is critical of any captive breeding programme unless it is linked to a release policy. “Ex-situ conservation must only supplement in-situ conservation; it cannot be a substitute,” he says. “Captive propagation can be an insurance against extinction, but the objective must be release and restoration to the wild and not letting the last survivors die in captivity, such as the Tasmanian thylacine, the American passenger pigeon, and the Schomburgk’s deer of Thailand.”
And then there is politics, which also determines the fate of a species. A tussle could soon emerge if Rajasthan, which is breeding the GIB, refuses to hand over the birds for release in Gujarat, for instance. In the past, Gujarat refused to hand over Asiatic lions to a Madhya Pradesh sanctuary in spite of a Supreme Court order.
Conservation breeding, reintroduction, translocation, and rewilding may have become buzzwords in conservation. But underlying all of them is the need on the part of human beings to ‘fix’ the problem they have created. Conservation practitioners are increasingly mindful that the real story begins after the gates of the breeding centres are opened. It’s restoring the last mile that is crucial.
The writer is the author of Rewilding: India’s Experiments in Saving Nature .