Even as the forest department wildlife wing has started captive breeding of cheer pheasant to increase its population, indiscriminate development and a new rationalisation policy might fail its efforts to save the endangered bird.
Surveys in the late 1970s had counted 1,000 pairs of the bird across the state, distributed sparsely in the catchments of the Sutlej, Beas, Yamuna and Ravi, where hydroelectric projects have now come up on not only these major rivers but also the tributaries. The roads and building projects could also trigger local extermination of the bird.
Redefining the boundaries of many protected forests in June 2013 has also left the pheasants vulnerable to hunting. "The rationalisation process excluded from the forest areas some villages that were important habitats of cheer pheasant nearby," said additional chief secretary (forest) Tarun Shridhar, adding: "It implies that the excluded cheer pheasant habitats now cease to be under the protected area network."
The realigned sanctuaries include Majathal, Chail and Kalatop Khajjiar. In 1980, Majathal was reported to have the highest population density of cheer pheasant at 24 pairs per kilometre. In the 2008 and 2009 surveys, the figure had declined to 5 pairs per km.
The rationalisation process further took away 8.53 square km from the sanctuary. Even though the excluded area had degraded because of human use, almost 40% of it is still potential habitat of the threatened bird. A significant portion of the Majathal sanctuary has submerged under the Kol dam reservoir. "The compromise (excluding some areas) was necessary to meet the demands of the sanctuary's human inhabitants for basic facilities they couldn't have because of restrained development on account of the wildlife laws," says forest department deputy secretary Satpal Dhiman.
He had presented a paper on the status of cheer pheasant at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
At Chail Pheasantries, with the support of the Central Zoo Authority of India, 79 cheer pheasants are being managed under a conservation breeding programme (CBP) in Himachal Pradesh. In the current breeding season, 11 chicks hatched naturally, which if required in future, can be released into the wild. The bird breeds on steep cliffs.