Pheasant fun

In January 2006, as a Research Associate for the World Pheasant Association (WPA), I visited southern Vietnam to help advise a young conservationist, Nguyen Tran Vy, with his studies on Pheasants. I had a great time then, seeing wildlife, sleeping rough in the forest, being at one with nature.

So much so that I wrote what was effectively the equivalent to a blog in those days, a short magazine article. As luck would have it, I recently had the opportunity to visit the area again with the same (not so young) Vietnamese conservationist and colleagues from King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi (KMUTT) in Thailand, to scope out a potential joint WPA, KMUTT and FFI project.

The aim of the visit was to assess the suitability and logistics of undertaking pheasant surveys, predominantly green peafowl, in Yok Don and Cat Tien National Parks, using funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which would form part of two PhD studies by Vy and a Thai student named Niti Sukamol.

This work is also part of a much wider project involving Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam being overseen by the WPA in an attempt to assess the conservation status of green peafowl and to develop strategies to improve the species conservation status.

I guess two questions that some may be asking is “why worry about pheasants and what’s the big deal about a peacock”. From a purely UK-centric point of view, this would be justified. Most people in the UK would regard pheasants as those stupid birds that seem hell-bent on throwing themselves under the wheels of cars that are very tasty when eaten, and peacocks as those great big noisy things that strut around parks and zoos showing off their gaudy plumage and showy tails.

Forest at Crocodile Lake, Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam FFI/Stephen Browne

Pheasants, as a family, number around 50 species and are part of a much larger group known as the Galliformes, or sometimes gamebirds, which includes pheasants, partridges, quails, francolins, cracids, grouse and megapodes and number around 300 species in total, found worldwide. The group also includes the red Jungle fowl, the domesticated version of which is the chicken and the turkeys and as such represent the most abundant source or protein consumed globally.

As a whole, around 25% of galliform species are globally threatened with extinction, on the IUCN Red List, making them one of the most threatened groups of birds, on average twice as threatened as any other birds.

The reasons for this are numerous, but principally, like most large species they have specific habitat requirements and changes to those can have large impacts, but Galliformes are thought to suffer more than other birds because they are thought to suffer from so much direct exploitation, and are hunted for so many cultural and livelihood needs.

These are exemplified by the green peafowl (member of the pheasant family) which was formerly found throughout much of SE Asia, from NE India and SW China in the north west through all of Myanmar, Indochina, peninsular Malaysia to the Indonesian island of Java in the south. This species, although slightly small than its easily domesticated relative the Blue (or Indian) Peafowl (the peacock of parks and zoo fame) it is still regarded by many as a good meal, it lays large eggs that are collected and its attractive so people like it as pets and its feathers for decoration.

As a result, green peafowl are now classified as Endangered, is absent from much of its former range and is found in isolated pockets in the countries where it does still survive. It is thought that without a concerted effort to understand the status of the species, its needs and for direct targeted conservation action the species will continue to decline rapidly towards extinction.

The team bird watching FFI/Stephen Browne

With this in mind my recent trip was filled with trepidation. Not only is there a lot resting in the proposed study for the species, with the two national parks being its last strong hold in Vietnam, the work would also constitute part of two PhDs that I would help supervise, but at a personal level would the Cat Tien be as good as I remembered it, or has the world change so much in just five years that the place is no longer as good as it was?

I need not have worried, the parks were fantastic, they are still dogged by illegal poaching and some logging, but the forests looked great, they are eminently suitable for the study.

We saw 14 green peafowl including a number of juveniles, four other species of pheasant, numerous bird species and even had stunning views of a number of groups of grey-shanked douc langur, one of whom apparently had a striking resemblance to me, according to one of the students!