While captive breeding can bring wildlife to the brink of extinction, viable habitat is essential for their survival in the wild.
The beautiful bird struts across its perch, its bright red plume glistening in the morning sun. The jhujhurana, as it is known locally, or the king of birds, tilts its head from side to side as it paces its house enriched with dried moss and fern. As real estate goes for tragopans, this is one of the best, a naturalistic enclosure that mimics the wild environment of the bird. The goal is for breeding pairs to lay enough eggs to support the next generation of the species in the wild. The population of the western tragopan, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh, has experienced a drastic decline, which is why the Saharan center, a few hours from Shimla, was set up to increase its population.
Wildlife filmmaker Munmun Dhalaria, who documented the story, was impressed by the hard work of the facility’s caretakers. “Considering how elusive and shy this bird is, it’s pretty amazing what the team managed to achieve,” she said. At the last count, there were over 45 birds in the center. Six of them, raised in the pheasant farm, were gently released to the nearby Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary last October. But there is still a long way to go: the ultimate goal of any conservation breeding is to establish a stable population of the endangered animal or bird in the wild. The habitat of this bird continues to suffer from various threats such as fragmentation, cattle grazing, tree pruning and poaching, and there is no evidence to suggest that these issues have been adequately addressed. before releasing the birds into the wild.
In neighboring Haryana, another conservation breeding project is underway. For scientist Vibhu Prakash, who first noticed the sharp decline in vulture populations, life has come full circle. It has been nearly two decades since he left Mumbai to set up the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Center in Pinjore, from which eight birds were released last October. Starting with a few pairs of rescued vultures, the center is now home to more than 378 birds, including the slender-billed vulture, the white-backed vulture and the long-billed vulture.
Prakash also opted for a gentle release of the eight birds from a pre-release aviary where they were kept for seven to eight months to encourage their interaction with the vultures in the wild. In smooth releases, Prakash explains, birds are released after familiarizing themselves with the environment and interacting with wild birds, helping them join groups and fly away. This greatly increases their chances of survival after release.
One of the freed vultures died of electrocution and another flew into the mountains, but weakened and subsequently died. Prakash observed that the released vultures gradually increased their flight and flight time as well as their distance, but were not able to have sustained flight with their wild counterparts. With diclofenac variants [a cattle drug that’s toxic to vultures that consume carcasses] still existing in farmland, “we have to be very careful,” Prakash explains, which is why releasing captive-bred birds in large numbers remains risky until every variant of the killer drug has been removed.
Limited human contact
In the sand dunes of Rajasthan, another captive breeding project is underway involving the Indian great bustard (GIB), but it is as shrouded in secrecy as India’s nuclear program. In order to increase populations of this critically endangered bird, six eggs were collected at the Jaisalmer center to create a founder population, and one chick was successfully hatched artificially in 2019. Human contact is limited and custodians are discreet about the transmission of any information.
Sutirtha Dutta of the Wildlife Institute of India explains: “It is an extremely difficult bird to manage; it is heavy, slow breeder and extremely sensitive to human presence, so there are many challenges when it comes to raising them in captivity ”. But there is an unmistakable joy in his voice as he describes the moment the first chick was born in captivity. “There is no doubt that conservation breeding has created a sense of hope for all of us when it comes to GIB,” he says. But like other birds, so do the bustard, their habitat continues to be plagued by threats such as power lines.
So, is it worth spending two decades rearing birds in captivity if threats to their habitat do not abate? Dutta is optimistic and stresses that their plan focuses not only on reproduction, but also on working closely with the forestry department to mitigate threats. “We have to do both ex-situ and in-situ conservation,” he says.
Setting up a breeding center and releasing a captive-bred creature into the wild is a good idea, it allows policymakers to show that they have “managed” the problem. But conservation breeding cannot solve the main problem of habitat decline, which caused the problem in the first place. The IUCN guidelines make it clear that a species should not be reintroduced until the reason for it has gone into decline has been addressed there.
Scarcity of funds
Conservation breeding is time consuming and expensive. Prakash is concerned about the funds needed to run the vulture breeding center: The Royal Society for Protection of Birds has cut funding due to the pandemic, and government funds have also been drastically reduced. While money is made available to create the infrastructure, the subsequent challenge of running these centers, which includes feeding the animals and the salaries of the keepers, is not sufficiently met.
If there is one conservation breeding program that has stood the test of time and succeeded in establishing a large population in the wild, it is that of the world’s smallest pig – the pygmy pig. Established in Assam by the world famous Jersey Zoo (now called the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), the breeding facility releases up to 15 animals into the wild each year and has so far released 145 pigs. But here too, the habitat of the pygmy pig is under constant threat.
Setting up camera traps at sites where pygmy pigs are released allowed the team to gather documentary evidence that the animals do breed in the wild. Parag Deka, veterinarian and project manager, and his colleague, Goutam Narayan, have dedicated their lives to bringing this relatively unknown mammal back from the brink.
One of the biggest threats to the dwarf pig is the elimination of grasslands. By working closely with the forestry department in places such as Orang and Manas national parks in Assam, they have been able to ensure to some extent that the grasslands are not burned during the breeding season of the pygmy pig.
How have conservation breeding projects performed in other parts of the world? The California condor is a classic example of a magnificent vulture that has made a comeback on the brink of extinction. The pesticide DDT had nearly wiped out its population, but an intense breeding program has brought more than 300 birds back to the wild.
The oryx, an antelope with long, straight horns and distinct facial markings, once found throughout the Arabian Peninsula, has become the star of breeding programs. The antelope had been hunted to near extinction until a successful captive breeding program, coupled with a hunting ban, helped revive its population in the wild.
Today, more than a thousand oryx roam the wild and the species has been reintroduced to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The question is, given all the money spent on raising animals in captivity, wouldn’t it be wiser to secure their habitats instead? Even in the case of gharial, there are few studies to prove that decades of captive breeding have had a significant impact on populations. In fact, a 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology notes the importance of “protective measures on the ground, which are essential in the face of threats such as hydrological diversions, sand extraction, fishing and cultivation on the banks”.
MK Ranjitsinh Jhala, who has been instrumental in shaping India’s wildlife policies, criticizes any captive breeding program unless it is linked to a release policy. “Ex-situ conservation should only complement in-situ conservation; it cannot be a substitute, ”he said. “Propagation in captivity can be insurance against extinction, but the goal must be liberation and restoration in the wild and not letting the last survivors die in captivity, such as the Tasmanian thylacine, the American carrier pigeon and the Schomburgk deer of Thailand. ”
And then there is politics, which also determines the fate of a species. A fight could soon break out if Rajasthan, which breeds the GIB, refuses to hand over the birds to release them in Gujarat, for example. In the past, Gujarat has refused to hand over Asian lions to a sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh despite an order from the Supreme Court.
Reproduction for conservation, reintroduction, translocation and rewilding may have become conservation buzzwords. But at the root of all of them is the need for human beings to “fix” the problem they have created. Conservation practitioners are increasingly aware that the real story begins after the doors of breeding centers open. It is the restoration of the last mile that is crucial.
The writer is the author of Rewilding: India’s Experiences to Save Nature.