India Interior

Three cheers for the ‘cheer pheasant’ project

Sarita Brara | Updated on December 27, 2019 Published on December 27, 2019

The village of Seri in Himachal Pradesh is going all out to protect the endangered bird species

Sixty-six-year-old Layakram recalls how local people would hunt chaidhs (local name of cheer pheasants) in the forests near their village Seri in Darbhog gram panchayat, for years. Then, in 1992, a wildlife team from abroad visited the village.

The team, accompanied by the then Forest Range Officer, held a meeting with the villagers and educated them about the cheer pheasants, a species whose numbers were dwindling and which was in the red list. The villagers were told that they were lucky that forests in the periphery of their village had these high-altitude pheasants crucial to the ecology and they should take a pledge not to hunt these birds. The villagers took an oath in the presence of the team and since then, says Layakram, the villagers have stopped hunting these and other birds for food.

Not just that, the villagers protect the forests against fires to ensure that these birds are not harmed. There have been visits by different teams from time to time. After surveys and ground work was done in the forests in the periphery of this village, it was decided to release cheer pheasants there. In October this year, Seri hamlet comprising 7-8 families hogged the headlines when 18 birds of this rare species of pheasants being bred in captivity at Chail pheasantry were brought here and reintroduced into the forests by the state chief minister amidst much fanfare.

Life has indeed changed for the villagers after this, says Layakram, who was working with the IPH department before his retirement. “Cheer pheasants have become part of our daily conversations or the panchayat meetings, but more than that, we feel it is our responsibility to help the forest department as much as we can to ensure that these birds are not harmed in any way.” Men and women avoid cutting fodder in the forest area where these birds have been released. “We do not want to scare these birds that are extremely shy by nature,” he says.

Ram Krishan echoes the sentiments of the villagers who feel extremely proud that their village was chosen for the release of these birds. The villagers are hopeful that if the birds released into the forests settle down and start breeding, it would bring name and fame to the village.

Youngster Satish Kumar says that even while in school he would accompany wildlife teams that came from time to time, and is now working as field assistant with the project. “Villagers have even given the Ghasnis (local name of fodder-growing area) owned by them for the project. We are hopeful that the project will be successful, that people from other States and countries will visit Seri.”

Another young man from Seri, Vikas, also associated with the project, says it feels good to be a part of this endeavour. “The population of pheasants had come down by 1990 because of hunters, mostly locals, but now people have become aware and are supportive of the project in whichever way they can.”

The villagers helped in construction of enclosures for cheer pheasants that were kept there before being released into the wilderness.

Gram Panchayat Pradhan, Darbhog Joginder Singh, also confirms that people have stopped poaching and hunting of birds and animals, realising the value of wildlife through this project and the visits that have been taking place.

“Not just pheasants but the kaakar (deer) and baagh (big cat) are also found in the forests in our gram panchayat.”

Samakshi, a research asssitant working for the project , who stays in Seri with one of the families, says not a day passes when the villagers do not inquire about the birds. “Have you been able to spot them, will they able to survive,” are the questions they keep asking. If they are able to spot a cheer pheasant they give a call to inquire whether it is one of the released birds!”

Happy with the hospitality of the villagers, Samakshi, who has come all the way from Rajasthan to work for this programme, says the project has given her a taste of village life.

Moreover, she has been able to spot 72 species of birds in the area.

Development programmes in focus

The attention on Seri because of the project aimed at increasing the dwindling population of cheer pheasant has also given a push to the long-standing demands of the area. Both Joginder Singh and Layakram, along with the villagers, are hopeful that the promised construction of road between Seri and Majhar in Satlahi will soon see the light of day. The road will reduce the distance of travel by 12 to 15 km. At present they have to take the road via Koti, which is often obstructed during winter due to snow. This will help them take their cash crops like peas and other vegetables to the markets in Dhali near Shimla and Solan. Financial assistance has also been promised for constructing a playground. The State government will also consider the request for an ITI centre in the gram panchayat. Renovation of a few school buildings is also expected.

For now, of course, the villagers in Seri are basking in the new-found fame of the village, hoping for the success of the cheer pheasant project and awaiting the promised developmental programmes.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on December 27, 2019

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