Captive breeding of rare pheasant hit by bacterial infection (With Images)

June 15th, 2010 - 10:57 am ICT by IANS  

By Vishal Gulati
Shimla, June 15 (IANS) A highly-endangered pheasant species, the brilliantly plumaged western tragopan that is being bred in captivity in a Himachal Pradesh pheasantry, has been hit by a bacterial infection which has put the brakes on breeding efforts this year.

The western tragopan is being bred at the Saharan pheasantry, located 160 km from Shimla, the only such in the world.

The pheasantry has 19 of the birds currently, down from the 23 it had till a few weeks ago. The bacterial infection has claimed three of the birds, while one died of natural causes.

“Almost all the western tragopans are infected with E. coli bacteria. We have decided to give up the central government-funded breeding programme this year,” Principal Chief Conservator (Wildlife) A.K. Gulati told IANS.

He said a random examination of the birds - 10 males and nine females - at the phesantry showed that almost every bird was suffering from the infection.

The first death was reported in the first week of May.

Sandeep Rattan, a veterinary surgeon, said: “We have managed to control the mass mortality of the birds. Most of the birds have been recovering, but the infection has severely affected their organs, including reproductive system.”

Gulati said the breeding process was slowed down by using “physiological techniques” as they are recuperating. The species normally breeds from May to July when the days are longer.

“We have shortened the daylight hours by covering the enclosures with tarpaulins from 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. every day. This helps retard further breeding,” he added.

Divisional Forest Officer K. Thrimul, who is in-charge of the Central Zoo Authority-funded pheasantry, said the birds have so far laid 65 eggs at different times and 16 of them are fertile.

“As now the egg-laying has been controlled, we are trying to ensure that brooding of the fertile eggs takes place naturally,” he said.

But the biologists involved in the breeding process have reservations about the continuation of the captive breeding programme.

“It’s not even advisable to go in for brooding and hatching (of the 16 fertile eggs). The birds are still in stress. And the chicks to be bred will be infected with bacteria. So, abandoning the eggs will be the right step,” said another veterinarian involved in the breeding programme.

“There are doubts about the continuation of the breeding programme as the entire stock has developed severe disorders in the oviduct. Their immunity has gone so low that it may not be revived,” he said while requesting anonymity.

The veterinarian said that for quite some years most of the birds had symptoms of ‘thin shell’ problem, which makes brooding difficult, but it was deliberately ignored by the veterinarians.

However, Gulati said: “It’s too early to comment on abandoning the breeding programme completely. By the next breeding season, the birds might be healthy and ready to breed again. We are monitoring them regularly.”

The western tragopan is listed in the Red Data Book of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a compendium of species facing extinction.

The breeding project, started in 2002 under the guidance of John Corder of the World Pheasants Association, got a boost in 2005 when a bird was bred in captivity for the first time in the world.

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, nine, four and two chicks were bred respectively. Though the females lay many eggs, only a few are fertile.

The western tragopan belongs to the family Phasianidae, which also includes the peafowl and the red jungle fowl. It is the least studied bird in the world.

Being a shy bird, it is rarely sighted in nature and is found at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,600 metres in the temperate forests of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

The bird is hunted for its brilliant feathers.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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