The bird sighting of the season wasn’t at Santragachhi Jheel or Joka but at Calcutta airport.
This winter’s most unlikely birds of passage chose one of Calcutta’s coldest days for a brief, clandestine stopover after flying more than 11,000km from Scotland towards a new home in the hills north of the city.
The group of nine — three Satyr and six Temminck’s tragopans — is being escorted from Scotland’s Royal Zoological Society, which runs Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling for a captive breeding programme supported by the UK-based World Pheasant Association.
The birds arrived in the city from Glasgow via Dubai on Thursday night aboard an Emirates flight at 7.25pm and were headed for Darjeeling by road within a couple of hours.
“The tragopans had some rest after the six-and-a-half- hour flight to Dubai. They were taken to the terminal in a special van with precise temperature control. Once they arrived in Calcutta, the zoo authorities took over,” said Amin Khan, the cargo manager of Emirates for eastern India.
Tragopans are a sight to behold, and suitably delicate. The Satyr tragopan is a “near-threatened” species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Temminck’s is categorised as “least concern”, a term relative to the population of other threatened species.
The two species are endemic to the central and eastern Himalayas, parts of China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Sources said all but one of the nine birds that had been flown in for the captive breeding programme were less than a year old. The last time a group of tragopans had been ferried this far, half of them had died by the time they arrived in Calcutta.
“That was in 2011. Sadly, those 12 birds had been delayed for a number of hours in transit at Singapore airport and were almost certainly left exposed to tropical conditions for a number of hours,” John Corder, one of the vice-presidents of the World Pheasant Association, told Metro.
Zoo officials in Darjeeling said new aviaries had been built at an off-site facility for the new arrivals. “These aviaries are large and specifically designed for tragopans. They have large patches of grass, several trees and proper night shelters,” an official said.
Alipore zoo has several pheasant species but no tragopans because they stand little chance of surviving the Calcutta summer. “Back in the early Eighties when the Blyth’s tragopan was being promoted as Nagaland’s avian treasure (it is the state bird), several of the species died while being taken by road and train to zoos in Delhi and other places. Awareness about what the species requires for survival was then low,” recalled a retired official of the Central Zoo Authority.
If the nine headed for Darjeeling go on to propagate the species, this city of bird lovers would be happy to remember they were here, even if for a while!