Are we looking at Asia's first pheasant extinction? The endangered Edwards's pheasant (Lophura edwardsi) has not been observed in the wild since 2000, and now surveys conducted by the World Pheasant Association (WPA) in the bird's two most likely habitats in Vietnam have failed to turn up any sign of the species.
Edwards's pheasant was described as fairly common when it was first described and named by French ornithologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards in the 19th century. Things took a turn for the worse during the Vietnam War when the bird's forest habitats were almost completely denuded by herbicides sprayed by U.S. forces. Since then, logging and deforestation for agriculture have taken their toll on the remainder of the pheasant's historic range.
The last official record of the bird was made more than 10 years ago, when a male pheasant was taken from a hunter in Quang Tri Province. "There was one unofficial sighting in 2009 where a suspected female was confiscated along the Hai Van Pass, but we are not sure how reliable this record is," says Matthew Grainger, conservation research and support officer for the WPA, who set up the recent surveys in Vietnam. The females of the species look very similar to a related pheasant and there is no DNA evidence from that bird to back up the record.
The WPA used camera traps in the Khe Nuoc Trong Watershed Protection Forest and Dakrong Nature Reserve to conduct its two surveys. The cameras recorded images of 28 other species, but found no evidence of the Edwards's pheasant. WPA considered these locations to be the most likely spots to find the bird because they are relatively undisturbed.
Although this was disappointing, Grainger reports that the WPA is not yet giving up on finding the pheasant in the wild. "We have another four or five sites—two sites are contiguous—where there is a potential for the species." But, he says, Vietnam's lowland forests are highly degraded and might not be able to support viable populations. One relatively undisturbed site that will be surveyed is the Truong Son State Forest Enterprise Area, although a visit to the site earlier this year was not promising. "On our visit we did not see much evidence of ground-dwelling animals remaining in high abundance in the site, which is a concern," Grainger says.
If any of the birds are ever found in the wild, the next step, Grainger says, would be to set up effective conservation measures with the WPA's partners in Vietnam, BirdLife International. "BirdLife has a good track record of setting up forest reserves so the management and skills needed for conservation are in place. This would include lobbying the Vietnamese government and local authorities in the region in which we find the species." More information on the ecology of the species would also need to be collected to aid in conservation efforts.
Luckily, even if Edwards's pheasant is never found in the wild, the species is not lost: There are healthy captive populations of the bird in Vietnam as well as in other countries, thanks to French-American ornithologist, Jean Delacour, who shipped some live birds to Europe in the 1920s.
WPA is currently looking for funding to complete its surveys.
Photo of a Edwards's pheasant in captivity by "subhumanfreak" via Wikipedia. Used under GNU Free Documentation license