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Working through the pandemic to save the Cheer pheasant

How conducting field work in a remote area to save a vulnerable bird species became a source of respite from the covid-19 lockdowns

A released Cheer pheasant at a feeding station installed by the reintroduction team.
A released Cheer pheasant at a feeding station installed by the reintroduction team. (Courtesy: NCF/Samakshi Tiwari)

Increasing anthropogenic pressures have led to severe environmental degradation and decline of several species. While protected areas offer refuge, a significant population of threatened species is found outside such areas -- unprotected areas are more widespread than these protected locations, and more susceptible to habitat change and anthropogenic pressures. This threat is further exaggerated for specialist species, which have specific habitat and food requirements.

One such species under serious decline is the vulnerable Cheer pheasant (Catreus wallichii). It is found only in successional grasslands maintained by residents near villages of the western Himalayas, at an elevation of 1,445-3,050 metre. Its proximity to humans has made the bird more vulnerable to hunting and nest damage by feral dogs. Its numbers have also been affected by burning of grasslands, overgrazing and conversion of grasslands to agricultural lands. This has led to local extinctions and a decline in the population of the species across its range. The population of the species now stands at less than 2,700 mature individuals.

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Looking at this decline of Cheer pheasants across its range, the Himachal Pradesh forest department’s wildlife wing started a conservation breeding programme in 2007 at the Khadiyun pheasantry in Chail. In 2019, the department decided to reintroduce the species to its suitable habitat.

The Cheer pheasant reintroduction team selected Seri, in Himachal Pradesh, for reintroduction of the species. The team considered presence of suitable habitat, proximity of the site from the captive breeding facility and support from the local community as important factors while selecting Seri as the reintroduction site. The site lies in grasslands between the villages of Seri and Undala, and consists of private grasslands and demarcated protected forest. It is 40 km from Shimla and lies under the jurisdiction of the Darbhog panchayat, Shimla.

The view from the soft release site.
The view from the soft release site. (Courtesy: NCF/Samakshi Tiwari)

I joined the reintroduction team when the department was getting ready to release the first few individuals into the wild. This was in September 2019, six months before the first wave of the covid-19 pandemic, followed by a lockdown in March 2020. I not only learnt the techniques of radio-tracking and managing a soft release facility for the first time, but it was also for the first time that I lived with a local community, working in the Himalayas. I am one of the frontline workers involved in the project, along with a forest guard and a field assistant. I have been living with a local family and the field assistants also belong to the village.

Seri is well connected to nearby places. Before the pandemic, a government bus ran everyday to Shimla and returned in the evening. I always travelled by the bus to attend meetings at our head office in Shimla. But since the site is remote, we always procured equipment and kept it at the site as travelling to Shimla was not always feasible. Moreover, owing to snowfall, the roads were often blocked during the winters.

We monitored the site up to three times a day. We radio-tracked the birds, checked images in the camera traps and conducted different surveys. At the field, we were unaffected from the happenings outside Seri. This independence is what helped us work smoothly despite the pandemic. When the pandemic suddenly hit India and the functioning of all workplaces changed, we continued to work like we did on any other day.

A wild Cheer Pheasant near the reintroduction site.
A wild Cheer Pheasant near the reintroduction site. (Courtesy: NCF/Samakshi Tiwari)

Despite this, we did face some delays due to the pandemic. It took us longer to procure camera traps, batteries and VHF radio tags for tagging and releasing birds for supplementation (in October 2020). I am certain that these difficulties are almost insignificant compared to the problems faced by researchers working in other parts of the country. Before the second wave, the pandemic had not spread to Seri or nearby villages. But the second wave did affect all these areas.

Our working conditions remained unchanged even during the second wave of the pandemic. I have been extremely fortunate to spend the pandemic in a safe environment, which has mostly been unaffected by this calamity. Little did I know that an opportunity to work in a remote area would be a source of respite from the lockdowns.

As the country prepares for a predicted third wave of the pandemic, the project is also getting ready to release the third group of birds into the wild. We have learnt to cope with the remoteness of the place and are working towards ensuring that we can continue to function effectively. I hope that even if the conditions worsen, we can optimistically continue to cite our field assistant, Vikas Thakur, and say “Arrey hum devi bhoomi me hai, humme nahi padhta farak bahar ki duniya se" (We are in the land of the Gods, whatever happens outside doesn’t affect us).

Samakshi Tiwari is a research assistant with the Himachal Pradesh forest department. This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation. To know more, join The Flock, a free newsletter on birds and nature awareness.

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