Adeel Saeed is a Peshawar-based journalist who contributes stories on the environment, climate change and wildlife.

“It took around three years to see the positive impact of this strategy where a significant rise in their population was observed.”

The cheer pheasant, an elusive wild bird, has been successfully reintroduced in the natural forests of Pakistan, a testament to the incessant efforts for the conservation of this threatened species in the country.

The Wildlife Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recently avowed to explore, study and understand the vulnerable population of this pheasant in the forests of Manshera district. Taimur Ali Shah, Divisional Wildlife Officer, Manshera district gave an update on the situation and stated that they have successfully explored a thriving population of around 15 to 20 pairs of pheasants in the wild. A few pairs of the rare cheer pheasants were released from Dhodial Pheasantry into the surrounding forest area around three years ago. The released birds have now grown into a flock of around 20 pairs.

This is a feat worth mentioning as it will provide new and valuable insights for the conservation and protection of such threatened and rare species in Pakistan for the future. These marvelous and visually resplendent birds are an indigenous species of Pakistan and we recently saw their numbers decline from the natural habitat. In Pakistan, five species of pheasants are found including khalij (Lophora leucomalana), koklass (Pucrasia macrolopha), cheer (Catreus wallichii), western tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus) and monal (Lophophorus impejaus).

"The population of cheer pheasants, which is listed as vulnerable in the IUCN’s Red List of Vulnerable Species, witnessed a significant decline in Pakistan in the late eighties as it was on the verge of extinction due to many threats such as poaching, hunting, grass burning and shrinking of habitats."

For now, the exact location of their population’s whereabouts, where they dwell and are thriving is deliberately being kept under wraps and the department of Divisional Wildlife did not divulge the details.

The reason was simple: to protect the species from any external threats. The discovered forest area is vulnerable and faces a multitude of challenges from the local population such as poverty, use of forest flora for medicinal purposes, fuelwood collection and illegal hunting. If poachers acquire information about the location, they will attempt to lure in locals to catch and sell the rare birds in the open market at exorbitant prices. This is not the first time the Wildlife Department has made an attempt to re-introduce cheer in its natural habitat.

For the last 30 years, since the early nineties, the department has been engaged in resolute conservation efforts through the development of breeding stock at Dhodial Pheasantry where the birds, once rehabilitated are eventually re-introduced in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, these efforts were not fruitful due to a number of reasons such as high mortality rates among the birds and mostly because of their elusive nature as they are inhabitants of dense forests and prefer complete isolation. The recent increase in their number was only achieved by enclosing and cordoning off the forest area with the help of local communities engaged in the protection of planted trees under the Green Pakistan Project. It took around three years to see the positive impact of this strategy where a significant rise in their population was observed, proving the plan had worked.

Sharing his thoughts about the conservation efforts for cheer pheasants in Pakistan, Dr Mumtaz Malik, former Chief Conservator of the Wildlife Department and founder of Dhodial Pheasantry said that in the early nineties, the department approached the World Pheasants Association (WPA) with the request to provide them with cheer pheasant eggs in order for them to be introduced in the natural ecosystem in Pakistan. The association dispatched 90 eggs to Dhodial Pheasantry as per the request. These eggs subsequently hatched and the chicks were meticulously cared for as the plan at the time was to foster and nurture the breeding stock of birds and ultimately release them in the wild. What could not be foreseen was the high mortality rate among the chicks and even mature adult birds, which hampered progress considerably

"The department worked ardently to foster and nurture the acquired eggs and the chicks and made repeated attempts to introduce them into the wild. In 1997 a breeding stock of cheer pheasants was obtained at Dhodial Pheasantry."

The department worked ardently to foster and nurture the acquired eggs and the chicks and made repeated attempts to introduce them into the wild. In 1997 a breeding stock of cheer pheasants was obtained at Dhodial Pheasantry. The result of this endeavour fwas far from successful. Several other attempts were also made by releasing birds in different locations but unfortunately, the desired results could not be achieved as the birds disappeared within a few months.

In early 2000, a plan to engage local farmers living within the habitable area of the cheer pheasant was chalked out. Farmers were offered a monthly stipend of PKR 500 for the hatching of cheer eggs in their custody, raising the chicks and later on releasing the adult birds into the natural habitat. Unfortunately, this plan had to be abandoned due to the devastating earthquake in 2005, which wreaked havoc and caused wanton destruction in the region

However, after repeated efforts, numerous attempts and considerable hard work, the efforts ultimately bore fruit. The forest was enclosed with the help of the locals, which ensured that the birds remained undisturbed from any anthropogenic activities. This was an emphatic victory for them. For all those who worked sedulously to introduce the cheer pheasant into the wild, the Wildlife Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Dhodial Pheasantry, their unmitigated efforts for over thirty years finally showed tangible results as the birds not only increased in number but can now be found in their natural environment.

There is an urgent need for strict protection of the area so that the population of the birds grows and they may thrive. To further the cause, by ensuring the participation and involvement of the locals, the Divisional Wildlife Officer, Manshera, proposed offering benefits to the local communities to play an effective and active role in protecting the cheer pheasant. In this regard, the Chief Conservator, Wildlife Department KP was requested to create at least two posts for watchers to be filled by locals to engage them in the protection of cheer pheasants, which would further help in increasing their number.

To make sure this does not stop and their conservation continues, it is imperative to declare the area a conservancy. The reintroduction of any species is a challenging prospect, for there is a need to address the threats that caused the problem in the first place. In this case, it is essential that the captive-bred birds are prepared for the tough conditions of the wild by equipping them with necessary survival skills with the help of the local communities.