Searching for the elusive western tragopan in the Great Himalayan National Park

Print edition : January 29, 2021

A male western tragopan in the Great Himalayan National Park, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

The western tragopan is the State bird of Himachal Pradesh. It looks like a jungle fowl and is secretive and shy. Local residents call it jujurana, which means king of birds. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A Temminck’s tragopan (named after the Dutch naturalist and ornithologist Coenraad Temminck) in the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

The Himalayan monal. It is one of the 16 species of pheasants endemic to the Indian Himalayan region. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A female Himalayan monal. Female pheasants are less colourful than the males. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A satyr tragopan, which was photographed in Bhutan. The local people are so involved in the protection of this bird that it roams freely like domestic chicken. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A male Himalayan monal in all his resplendence. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A Himalayan monal in flight. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

A koklass pheasant, another of the 16 species of pheasants endemic to the Indian Himalayan region. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

The white-throated tit, another important denizen of the Great Himalayan National Park, though not one of the pheasant species. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

The kalij pheasant. Pheasants can be found in various vegetation types and altitudinal gradients. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

Another of the attractions of the Great Himalayan National Park apart from its wildlife are cold streams, of which it has more than 2,700, mostly gushing and noisy. Photo: Gautham Pandey

Blyth’s tragopan. The name commemorates the English naturalist and ornithologist Edward Blyth, who lived in India and was the curator of zoology at the Asiatic Society of India in Calcutta. Photo: Jainy Maria Kuriacose

Jainy Maria Kuriacose.

Braving the cold and hostile terrain of the Himalayan heights, determined birders go in search of the colourful and ground-dwelling western tragopan, and find it.

MOST wildlife photographers and birders would say that the western tragopan is a tough bird to find. This rare and elusive bird of the pheasant family with striking plumage lives in the high altitudes of the Himalaya; the highest population of the bird is in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, 75 kilometres from Kullu town. The Tragopan genus has five species: the western tragopan, the satyr tragopan, Blyth’s tragopan, Temminck’s tragopan and Cabot’s tragopan. The first four are found in India and the last one can be found only in China.

Pheasants are charismatic birds with gorgeous plumage, ground dwelling (flightless) and associated with woody and diverse vegetation. Of the 51 species of pheasants in the world, 50 are endemic to Asia. The lone exception is the Congo peafowl, which is a native of the Congo Basin in Africa. The Indian Himalayan region has 16 species, including the Himalayan monal, the koklass pheasant, the kalij pheasant and the tragopans, occupying various vegetation types and altitudinal gradients.

The western tragopan, the State bird of Himachal, looks like a jungle fowl and is secretive and shy. Local residents call it jujurana, which means king of birds. The colourful bird is the theme of many folk songs describing it as a beautiful creation of God. It is this creation, which guides who accompany birders and photographers call the “invisible bird”, that Jainy Maria Kuriakose, a chemical engineer turned birder and wildlife photographer, went in search of in May 2016 along with the celebrated French birder Yann Masuki.

They started trekking by 3 a.m. and sat patiently at many vantage points waiting for the bird but in vain. Several days passed in this way. Masuki walked with great speed, something that is difficult to do in the oxygen-deficient Himalayan heights for plainspeople, and she was not able to keep up with him. On the sixth day of their expedition, he disappeared into some remote corner of the forest and the guides too had gone far ahead. Jainy Kuriakose waited, but there was no sight of him or the guides. Soon the weather changed: Dark clouds loomed large and icy winds were blowing. The situation was rather frightening because Himalayan black bears could be around. Realising that she was stranded, she tried to find her way back to the camp. Luckily, in the distance she could hear the guides, who came to her rescue.

At the camp, there was Masuki, with a smile on his face on seeing her. And then, he showed her a photograph he had taken of the tragopan. The bird, he told her, appeared on a slope all of a sudden. Jainy Kuriakose, though disappointed, shared his joy. Masuki consoled her and said that they would again the following day.

They started early in the morning but drew a blank up to 1 p.m. Then the guide, sensing something, said that he was sure they would see the bird that day. After a few more minutes of patient waiting, they suddenly heard the call of a male bird. Stillness followed the call. Jainy Kuriakose, Masuki and the guide were crouched behind a fallen tree. The guide made a bird call in the hope that the bird would respond.

After a while, the response came, in the form of two birds, a male and a female, as they emerged from the undergrowth. The male was agitated probably because he thought some other male bird had intruded into his territory. Both the male and the female advanced towards the fallen tree. Jainy Kuriakose focussed her camera. Suddenly, the female retreated, but the male continued to advance. She clicked many shots when the bird was close to her. It was a golden moment in her life. Then, the male retreated with a grumble and disappeared into the bushes.

May 2, 2016, is a day that will remain etched in Jainy Kuriakose’s memory forever. She had found the “invisible bird”, so called because it squeezes into the thick undergrowth of the forest to hide. It is the most difficult bird to photograph largely because it spends its time in thick vegetation, said the ornithologist Rahul Kaul to this writer. He is also co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s specialist group on Galliformes (heavy-bodied birds such as pheasants). The western tragopan’s mating season, which lasts from April to May, is when the bird comes out to open grassland and other spots, but chances of sighting it are still remote.

Rajesh Bedi, a leading wildlife photographer who does a lot of Himalayan trekking, said: “I never saw the bird.” Gautham Pandey, a wildlife film-maker, said he struggled for two years to make a short film that included the bird. Munmun Dhalaria, a film-maker, had to trek for two years in the park to make a documentary feature (called The Jujurana’s Kingdom) on the western tragopan.

K. Ramesh, a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, who studied this bird and other pheasants for eight years (1999–2007) for his PhD, said long and patient waiting was needed to observe the bird and to catch them, using mist nets, so that they could be fitted with necklace-type radio transmitters. Trapping the birds with the nets was a challenging feat that was carried out meticulously keeping local conditions and the safety of the birds in mind. The efforts of eight years yielded a wealth of information on their movements; breeding biology; roosting, feeding and nesting habits; and so on, he said and added that through his studies and observations he found that the pheasants occupied forested landscapes from tropical scrub forests to alpine regions and showed a marked preference for ground cover. Ramesh said the pheasants’ large size and heavy plumage were possibly physiological requirements they needed to withstand the harsh climatic conditions of the high-altitude mountains. In winter, when much of the ground is covered with snow and resources are limited, they are forced to come down to lower altitudes. According to him, pheasants enjoy a special status in the landscape as the most charming and conspicuous of the fauna. They are also regarded as the most distinctive bird family of the Himalaya because of their bright plumage. They play a significant role in the high-altitude ecology as prey base for carnivorous birds and other mammals.

Male pheasants are more colourful than the females, which are mostly dull. Male western tragopans have a conspicuous wide red patch down each side of the neck and the back of the neck. They have a black coat with numerous white spots. In the mating season, the male bird does a dance to attract the female. When aroused the male has two fleshy horns that bulge out from the side of the head, which is why the Tragopans are called horned pheasants. Then a blue patch unfurls like a ceremonial banner down his chest. After mating, the horns and blue bib withdraw.

The government notified the GHNP in 1999. It has an area of 1,170 square kilometres at an altitude that ranges from 2,000 metres to 6,000 m. This UNESCO World Heritage site, so designated for its “outstanding significance for biodiversity conservation”, has 200 species of birds. The snow leopard, the black bear and the Himalayan tahr are its prominent mammal species. Another of the park’s attractions are cold streams, of which it has more than 2,700, mostly gushing and noisy.

Dhritiman Mukherjee, an acclaimed wildlife photographer, told this writer: “For six years, I trekked different altitudes of the park in search of the western tragopan. At last, I got it in July 2010. I clicked. The bird was there only for a few seconds. But fortunately, I got a bright photograph.” He said the guides carved out new paths in the forest for him. He crouched for hours around the trees along new paths the guided carved out for him before he was able to photograph it.

Enthralling landscape

A hard trek is the only way to go in search of the bird in the high-altitude areas of the park, where steep climbs and slippery slopes make it one of the most difficult treks in the park. Even if one does not see the bird, the landscape is enthralling and dramatic, with the mountain peaks sometimes draped in clouds and at other times when the sun makes them look like they are bathed in celestial light.

Jainy Kuriakose, who has documented 1,200 of India’s 1,300 listed species of birds, felt an irresistible fascination for Dhritiman Mukherjee’s photograph of the western tragopan. Over the past 17 years, she has travelled widely in India, including to the remote corners of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Nagaland, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, for birding. A trekker of untiring zeal and considerable field knowledge, she has gone to little explored areas and come back with some remarkable photographs. She has been to the mysterious rainforests of Papua New Guinea (“Colours of heaven”, Frontline, May 24, 2019), the snowy wilderness of Alaska, the dreaded paths of the Arfak Mountains of Indonesia and most recently to Costa Rica.

“Ever since I took to birding, I was determined to go in search of the western tragopan,” she said. She made her first trip to the GHNP in April–May 2015. In the beginning, she enjoyed the trek, on which she was accompanied by guides, who had planned for night camps. But as hours passed, the steep climbs, and negotiating the slopes and rocky protrusions made her breathless, but she managed to keep moving forward, she said. She ranks her treks in the Arfak Mountains in Indonesia to be harder but the GHNP climb was more tedious.

Seven days of hard trek yielded no result, not even a fleeting sight of the bird or a hint of its call. It was a total disappointment. But she was happy that she was able to photograph many other birds, including pheasants such as the Himalayan monal. She was also happy to have met there the naturalist and birder James Eaton from Britain, who is knowledgeable about South Asian birds. He had the prized catch of a photograph of a western tragopan, which he took in the park on May 4, 2015. He said he got it only after a long and patient wait. The photograph rekindled Jainy Kuriakose’s hopes: “I was happy that the bird was there in the park and was not a phantom,” she said So, she decided to visit the park again the following year. And what a visit that turned out to be!

When this writer contacted James Eaton to learn how he managed to catch the bird on film, he replied in an email: “I camped for 7 days and waited patiently for the bird to appear. The bird is wary of people due to poaching…. Though I could not get a close view because of the terrain, I could watch the bird from a distance.” He did not think the western tragopan was a difficult bird and said that there were many birds in India that had never been photographed, such as the long-billed bush warbler, the Himalayan quail and the Manipur bush quail.

In the months following her sighting of the western tragopan, Jainy Kuriakose was able to capture other Tragopans. She got Blyth’s tragopan (named after Edward Blyth, an English naturalist and ornithologist who lived in India and was the curator of zoology at the Asiatic Society of India in Calcutta) and Temminck’s tragopan (named after Coenraad Temminck, a Dutch naturalist and ornithologist) in the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh (“In search of exotic birds”, Frontline, September 15, 2017). The Mishmi Hills are a great birding area in Arunachal Pradesh. It was not at all difficult to photograph Blyth’s tragopan. She was able to get close to it and, in fact, she felt that the bird even posed for her.

She was able to photograph the satyr tragopan in Bhutan, where hunting is totally prohibited. The local people are so involved in the protection of this bird that it roams freely like domestic chicken, even coming into the courtyards of houses. These three Tragopan species are accessible to photography; it is only the western tragopan that is elusive.

Captive breeding

September 2020 witnessed an important event in the conservation of western tragopans in India and the world. The Sarahan Wildlife Wing of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department made a great contribution to captive breeding. Six western tragopan chicks were released into the wild, which marked a first for India. As a first stage, they are being kept in a separate shed in the wild. They will be taken out of the shed later and released at high altitudes.

All the chicks are tagged with VHF GPS devices so that they can be monitored. Dharam Veer Meena, Divisional Forest Officer, who heads the captive breeding centre said that all the birds are ringed and camera traps have been set up. He said the data will help them understand the behaviour, range, foraging and breeding behaviour, and so on, of the birds. The released birds will breed with the wild population and gradually self-sustaining breeding should occur, Meena said.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi, Kochi.