Time To Cheer
In the company of affable local guides, Gaurav Sharma navigates the steep slopes of the staggeringly beautiful Great Himalayan National Park to savour the delights of walking hills and valleys populated by Cheer Pheasants and their co-inhabitants.
Photo: Kartik Patel.
It was early March and the season’s last snow had just melted in the lower Tirthan valley. Following a narrow trail overlooking the deep valley below, we were approaching Nadhar, an upland hamlet neighbouring the Deokanda Protected Forest in the Great Himalayan National Park Ecozone. Pointing to the edge of a tall cliff, Keshav, my host from Nadhar, confirmed the location where we should be ready and waiting for the Cheer Pheasants before dawn. According to him, a good population of Cheer had survived the winter and we would be able to sight them the next morning.
Photo: Gaurav Sharma.
GUNS AT DUSK
I soon realised that it was not about surviving the harsh and cold weather just gone by, but the seasonal onslaught of local hunters from the valley below who seek the Cheer for its meat. Despite the relative isolation and ideal habitat, Cheer numbers are not showing an upward trend. Rampant illegal hunting decimates any gains in population from every successful breeding and rearing season. So far, Keshav alone has been thwarting off hunters who wander into this area. A difficult task since they hunt under the cover of darkness.
The next morning, we were on the trail soon after 4 a.m. Using a torch to illuminate the way, we reached the vantage point. The Cheer were expected to enter the scene soon after dawn from their roosting site in vegetation near a small waterfall below. Barely a few minutes had passed when I saw seven large birds flying overhead in beautiful formation against a dimly-lit, early morning sky.
Looking up, I knew that the day was already over for me. The Cheer were in fact roosting in the few bushes straight overhead, while we were waiting for them to appear from below! As the flock flew to a distant, unnavigable slope, a lone Himalayan goral stepped out into the open upon hearing the Cheer take flight. The goral ran at spectacular speed through the steep terrain and stood nearly static for over an hour on a rock. Goral often tend to be found in suitable Cheer habitats, though the reverse is not always true. Protecting known Cheer habitats can possibly benefit both these threatened species of the Himalaya.
While working with a shy and elusive species like the Cheer, it is important to listen for their call at dawn that helps to find their approximate location on the slopes. The hunters prefer to work differently I was told. The hunters won’t wait till morning for any sighting. They stake out the roosting sites at dusk, and then use a blinding torchlight before shooting the pheasants right at their roosting site.
On hindsight, we realised that the Cheer may have mistaken us for hunters prowling the area since we were bearing a torch to navigate the slopes and carrying a tripod vaguely resembling a firearm. It made me dwell on the sheer horror these pheasants go through, suddenly waking up to face-blinding torchlight and gunshots.
Photo: Gaurav Sharma.
In early June, I climbed to Nadhar straight up from a trail head on the banks of the Tirthan river. The next morning, Keshav’s younger brother, the affable Shiv Ram, offered to be my guide for the day. We spotted a Cheer take flight and disappear into the fern-dominated undergrowth. But an exploration of two uphill areas in the vicinity of two different small streams produced no sightings despite calls being heard earlier at dawn.
A recce of Kanha Thach, an area three kilometres to the northwest, was hurriedly planned since there were reports about historical presence of another group of Cheer there. We navigated the steep slopes following a narrow trail for about two hours to reach the southwest limit of Deokanda ridge. A shepherd, who we encountered returning with his flock from the meadow at Deokanda, confirmed having sighted a group of Cheer while grazing his sheep on a slope a little northwards. The problem was the said sighting happened two days ago and he had not seen or heard anything since then. Given the distance from Nadhar and the topography, it made sense to head back and reach Nadhar just before dark.
Cheer Pheasants have a curious association with montane grasslands around human habitation that have limited grazing and grass-cutting activities. The grassy slopes, often used by local herders for grazing their livestock, remain susceptible to seasonal wildfires. A few years ago, a razing wildfire that originated lower in the valley below had reached this elevation and completely incinerated these grasslands. A small stonewall was erected soon after that to stop a raging wildfire, or at least reduce the scale of damage, in the event of a similar incident in the future. Although the motivation may have been protecting the pastures and some fruit trees around, it indirectly worked to protect a significant part of the Cheer habitat too.
I was rather amused to learn that the Cheer can be surprisingly tolerant of livestock, especially sheep, grazing in their habitat. The shepherds in this area mean no harm to the Cheer and the pheasants have learnt to share their habitat with the grazing livestock. When flushed by advancing sheep, the Cheer typically do not fly away. They instead keep moving, slowly and in tandem with the advancing sheep, maintaining a constant safe distance. It seems that the Cheer have a preference for partially-degraded habitat where humans do not harm them, and whose activities instead help regenerate the undergrowth crucial for their survival.
Map Not To Scale.
The following year in late May, with Shiv Ram as guide, I took an elevated trail skirting Deokanda ridge to reach Nadhar. Scrambling for a path in the last leg of this detour, we descended to Nadhar with two goral sightings but no sign of Cheer. Behind our back and as if to tease us, the Cheer now gave their evening call, which could be heard clearly upon reaching Nadhar.
The following morning, multiple Cheer calls were heard soon after first light at 4:30 a.m. Calls came from all four directions, with the loudest coming from the northeast and southwest. We rushed southwest but could not sight even one calling individual. The calls were in fact coming from a forested cliff located deep below in an inaccessible area. Around 6 a.m. and less than a kilometre further west, we were now treading very quietly and cautiously. Suddenly, three Cheer took to a gliding flight downhill, barely five metres from us, as we looked on in complete bewilderment.
In order to not lose sight of the Cheer, we had few options but to descend along a steep slope that had been strictly out of plan so far. Halting at a vantage point, we spent the next four hours waiting for their sporadic appearances and watching them go about their business. The Cheer would come into sight for a couple of minutes in open grassy patches before disappearing out of sight for the next 20-25 minutes. It was amazing to see how they moved, and sometimes literally slid, under the cover of grass. With their camouflaged plumage and a cautious mode of movement, the Cheer surprisingly kept going in and out of sight even in open patches. None of the three Cheer were calling now but were quietly feeding. After 11.15 a.m., we left the area as they had been untraceable for the past hour. Unable to locate them that evening, a directly-sighted calling male led us to the other two in the same area the following morning. We spent four hours watching the trio from a distance before they disappeared.
Photo: Gaurav Sharma.
As indicated by numerous calls coming from multiple directions, the actual number of Cheer in this area was far greater than those directly sighted. With raptors and crows scanning the slopes throughout the day, the sparsely-forested slopes were seemingly the sites of breeding females and their guarding males at this time of the year. There would soon be dense undergrowth here after June, which during the first few months provides crucial cover to females moving with their vulnerable young. In autumn, it is not unheard of to find Cheer here in groups of about 15 when juveniles accompany mixed adults. The pair formation starts again in March as the annual cycle repeats itself.
The slopes around Nadhar have always supported a good, self-sustaining population of Cheer. The numbers have sometimes dwindled due to hunting pressures and then surprisingly recovered again, underlining the suitability and resilience of this very promising site. The limited biotic pressures here have traditionally remained well-balanced with Cheer Pheasant ecology. While ecozone areas entail no stringent protection, camera traps can still be effectively employed at suitable points to keep a check on poachers.
On the right bank of the Tirthan river is a 10 km. stretch between Nadhar and Rolla dotted with a few tiny villages. A number of slopes along this stretch have historically supported wild Cheer populations and can still be developed as a refuge for this pheasant species. The breeding Cheer from Nadhar must first be shielded from illegal hunting and allowed to re-populate the slopes beyond. The protection of the Cheer can be spearheaded by locals from these villages, who can then lead and benefit from Cheer-focused ecotourism opportunities.
Photo: Gaurav Sharma.
Nadhar can be an ideal site for a long-term study of Cheer Pheasant behaviour and ecology. Given the tolerance and sometimes usefulness of limited biotic pressure to Cheer, it is high time to initiate and strengthen community-based conservation of Cheer in suitable sites.
Author: Gaurav Sharma, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.