Pheasant wiped out by the Vietnam war to return?


The Vietnamese endemic gamebird Edwards's Pheasant is probably extinct in the wild, but the presence of large numbers in captivity has raised hopes of reintroduction.

Edwards's Pheasant, which is listed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International, is a species endemic to Vietnam that has not been seen in the wild since 2000. This beautiful bird, the males of which are iridescent blue with a flash of red on the face and a white crest, was little known in the wild even prior to its disappearance. It was said to inhabit the dark shadows of the constantly wet lowland forests of the country, and was discovered in 1896. It continued to be recorded by French ornithologists during the early 20th century, but then went unnoted for almost 60 years. In 1996 it was rediscovered, but almost as soon as it was found, vanished again. Extensive surveying of its favoured haunts has found no trace of it since.

Male Edwards's Pheasants are a striking glossy dark blue with a red-wattled face (BirdLife International).

The species is a lowland rainforest specialist. The centre of the its historic range lay in Vietnam's Quang Tri province, the site of the demilitarised zone during the country's devastating war, and an area that suffered the fiercest fighting and the most aggressive use of herbicides. During the war, which raged from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, 72 million litres of herbicides, including the infamous Agent Orange, were sprayed on forests and fields by American troops to clear vegetation. The effects on the area’s biodiversity, including the beleaguered Edwards’s Pheasant, were disastrous.

Since the war, increasing human populations and their demand for land for agriculture have further reduced any habitat suitable for any remaining Edwards’s Pheasants. Some areas of forest, although they may look intact with trees re-grown or replanted, may be devoid of animals because they have been intensively hunted for food or illegal trade. Populations of Edwards’s Pheasant have been reduced, fragmented and left fragile, if there are any left at all. Snares set for bush meat may have picked off the last individuals and the species could well be extinct in the wild.

The only known individuals of Edwards's Pheasant are in captivity, but there may well be a viable breeding population there (Dick Daniels (www.commons.wikimedia.org)).

However, there is some good news. During the 1920s, at least 14 Edwards’s Pheasants were taken into captivity and sent to France. This small, exiled population has done well and there are currently more than 1,000 birds in collections across the world, including birds in Vietnam’s own Hanoi Zoo. Some may not be purebred, but genetic analysis is currently underway to find the best stock. The plan is to select the purest birds to breed viable offspring for future release into the wild, from two or three generations of chicks raised by their own parents. It will take at least five to seven years but, if successful, these birds could be released back into the wild to be the first of new populations of Edwards’s Pheasant or to help the recovery of any undiscovered wild populations that may yet exist.

Efforts are being made to locate any remaining numbers of Edwards’s Pheasant in pockets of suitable habitat within larger blocks of forest. A range of measures will be implemented to restore and safeguard other potential habitats. One of the greatest threats to the success of a reintroduction programme is hunting, so Viet Nature (BirdLife in Vietnam) and its partners are aiming to eradicate hunting at key sites such as Khe Nuoc Trong, Bac Huong Hoa, Ðakrong, Phong Dien and Ke Go Nature Reserve.

The first steps towards establishing an Edwards’s Pheasant breeding programme have already been taken. With the support of local partners, Viet Nature will build a breeding station and environmental education centre on five hectares of land in Quang Binh province (outside any reserve for biosecurity reasons). The support of a technically qualified and interested partner is being sought to help fund and manage the new station when it is up and running.

The species is capable of a viable breeding status in captivity, and conservationists hope that such birds can be released into the wild and survive (Frank Wouters (www.wikimedia.commons.org)).

The Edwards’s Pheasant ex-situ conservation community, including staff at Hanoi Zoo and zoos and private breeders in Europe, are now selecting the best birds for the breeding programme. Four individuala were sent to Hanoi Zoo in 2015 to breed with descendants of the only wild male, caught in 1997. Viet Nature and Hanoi Zoo are collaborating on a plan to bring the first birds for the breeding station either from, or via, the zoo.

Release into the wild will take more time, trial and error, and not all the birds released will survive. The first aviaries with a few pairs of Edwards’s Pheasants are to be built at the breeding station this year. It is hoped that by 2029 there will once again be sustainable populations of Edwards’s Pheasant in the wild in its homeland.

Written by: BirdGuides news team