by Prachi Dadhich

Several studies claim that Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatusface faces severe threats. These include hunting for meat, feathers, medicinal purposes and poisoning by farmers to protect their crops. In 1972, it was added to Schedule I of Indian wildlife protection act and also to Appendix-1 of CITES. However, population estimates by several environmental groups and WWF claim that it has decreased by around 50% since the time of independence.

Indian Peafowl is one of the largest members of the family Phasianidae. In 1963, it was declared as the national bird of India as it had a wide distribution. Moreover, it also has a strong connection with the history and culture of India where it is associated with various gods. It was the “vahana” or vehicle of Lord Murga in southern India (Fig 1) and Lord Krishna used to keep peacock feathers on his forehead (Fig 2). During ancient times in India this species held an important status. In fifth century AD when Gupta dynasty ruled India, Indian Peafowl was considered as a crucial object for art and architecture. Moreover, several coins were issued with its illustration (Fig 3). Even Tughlaks took up peafowl feather design for the state emblem and headgear of the soldiers. Islamic religious buildings depict various drawings of peafowl (Fig 4). In Christianity it was considered as the symbol of “resurrection”.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Figure 4.

Indian male peacock is also known as “bird with thousand eyes” because of its beautiful train of colorful tail feathers (Fig 5). This special train consists of 100 to 150 greenish blue tail coverts. Usually birds get their colours of feather from the selective pigments, but this is not the case with this species. The colour is obtained from the optical phenomenon and the microstructure of the feather. Each feather has several ornamental ocellus or eyespots which is distinctive for this bird (Fig 6). However, the females have dull brown plumage lacking these attractive eyespots. These precious feathers are used to attract females during breeding season. But recently scientists have found that they produce an infrared sound from these feathers which is inaudible to humans. They think it can fulfill two purposes, either maintaining their territory or attracting females.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

Indian Peafowl can be found extensively in the Indian sub-continent. Its distribution ranges from Jammu and Kashmir to east Assam, South Mizoram and the Indian Peninsula. However, Rajasthan, Mathura, and Chitrakoot are some of the regions recorded with highest numbers. They also been introduced in USA, Europe, Hawaii islands, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Andaman Islands. Ornithologists suggest that they number  more than 100,000.

They prefer moist, dry deciduous and semiarid biomes in which they form leks during the breeding season where a lot of males display their feathers in open areas to attract females.  Dust bathing is done to remove bacteria and external parasites from their feathers (Fig 7). Usually they are found in a flock commonly known as Muster. One of the vital decision incudes selection of roosting sites. because it acts as the platform for sharing information and even provide protection from main predators. Generally, they make an attention call whenever they sense danger. Common places for roosting include tall buildings or trees (Fig 8).

Figure 7.

Figure 8.

Their decline in many regions in India has attracted attention. They face many threats:

  1. They are killed in huge numbers for their alluring and elegant feathers. There are trade centres in many regions of India selling these plumes illegally. A recent study by TRAFFIC in 2008 confirmed Agra as centre for trade. Three of the communities Harries, Kanjars and Khatkis were involved selling a total of 20 million feathers annually. Having domestic, decorative and religious values the demand of these plumes has become high (Fig 9). Due to this illegal poaching and trapping, the species has completely vanished from some parts of Pakistan.
  2. To resolve this issue, a rule of using only shed feathers was amended. But for making the job easy and fast, poachers still prefer to kill the bird for collecting the tail coverts. To complete this task, they usually pick mass poisoning due to these bird’s territorial nature (Fig 10). Even hunting them is quite simple as they roost at the same site every day.
  3. Some poachers are very specific for their choices. So, they wish for plumes without any blood. To accomplish this work they grab the bird, break their legs then harvest their feathers.
  4. They are even hunted for meat. Recently, a divisional forest officer of Andhra Pradesh, India confiscated some cooked meat, bird residue (intestine) plus a wooden block used for cutting meat. To identify the species being cooked, a set of universal primers were used. Through this they confirmed that following species has been killed illegally which is regarded as wildlife crime.
  5. Another threat is human interference and habitat destruction. Recently, a survey of the Indian peafowl population in Sigur Plateau, Tamil Nadu, India revealed that the population is decreasing rapidly. Local people shared that habitat alteration and invading human habitation are the main reasons behind their decline.
  6. Due to a decrease in their natural habitat they tend to live alongside humans. This increases the chance for an encounter with predators such as domestic dogs.
  7. Peafowl are considered as one of the serious pests of crops. To protect their crops, farmers sometimes opt to do intentional poisoning.
  8. Since only male peafowl are targeted for the feathers, it can lead to problem of skewed sex ratio of its population.

Figure 9.

Figure 10.

Though these are the main threats faced by this species, their body parts are also used as various drugs.

No. Body Part Disease Treatment Place
1. Feathers Cough Ash of feathers Tribes of Nandurbar, district of Maharashtra.
Hiccups Ash of feathers +Piper longum+Cuminum cyminum Tribes of Thirunelveli, Nilgiris, Coimbatore and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu.
Headache Ash of feather + coconut oil Attappadi Hills of Palghat District in Kerela.
Cough, asthma and other respiratory disease. Ash of feathers + goat milk Pench National Park of Chhindwara District of Madhya Pradesh.
To get male child Ash from upper rounded portion of feather + seeds of Diplocylos palmatus + jaggery + cow milk Shekhawati region of Rajasthan.
Asthma and Tuberculosis Ash from crown of feather + honey Jalore and Barmer district, Rajasthan.
2. Legs Ear problem Legs boiled in oil. Tribes of Nandurbar district of Maharashtra.
Ear infection Legs rubbed with water. Baran district, Rajasthan
3. Flesh Contracted limbs Melting of fat content of visceral organs on light flame. Tribes of Thirunelveli, Nilgris, Coimatore and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu.

The government of India and several institutes are working in protecting this bird. Some of the actions include:

  1. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has kept a proposal of banning illegal trade of peacock feathers. The increased poaching and killing of the bird is mainly due to high demand for the plumes. Therefore, Ministry has decided to amend sections 43(3)(a) and 44 of the Wildlife Protection Act.
  2. Another issue is unknown estimation of population size. As a solution certain proposals are kept forward under the nation-wide campaign Save the National Bird, WPA- India. This includes a survey to know the current status of the species. Moreover, on 19 June 2006, the board authorized a periodic monitoring, survey for population size and proper protection measures.
  3. Lately, the Wildlife Institute of India organized a questionnaire survey on population status of Indian peafowl.
  4. Central government in 2013 banned the usage of feathers in handicrafts and jewellery.
  5. Recently, the government has amended the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The following act describes the trade of body parts of peafowl equivalent to punishment for killing other non-endangered species. The person breaking the rule will be jailed for up to two years.
  6. A study by Wildlife Institute of India confirmed the way to distinguish between shed and plucked feathers. By this means the illegal trade can be caught red handed.
  7. Very few sanctuaries in India are involved in conservation and breeding of peacocks. One of them is Bankapur sanctuary also known as “Peacock Paradise” in Karnataka is exclusively indulged in this process.

Though there are steps taken for keeping the common bird common but still there is a need to take more actions.

  1. Using scientific methods like line transect, call counts and roost counts to have an estimate of the population.
  2. To identify high risk areas and potential sites to take immediate actions.
  3. Mapping the species for its habitat and distribution status.
  4. Have a detailed account of trade with the source and people involved.
  5. Making volunteer groups to Educate local people on species behavior and habitat.

Birds are one of the most important parts of the environment. Once the Biologist and Godfather of Biodiversity, Thomas Lovejoy said that “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the Environmental Problems in the world.”

References

  • Arockianathan S. and Ramakrishnan B. 2018, Population status, habitat selection and people’s perception on Pavo cristatus (Aves: Phasinidae) in Sigur Plateau, the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India. Nature Conservation Research, 3:80-87.
  • Gupta K.S., Verma K.S. and Singh L. 2005, Molecular insight into a wildlife crime: the case of a peafowl slaughter. Forensic Science International, 154:214-217.
  • Kushwaha S. and Kumar A. 2016, A Review on Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) Linnaeus, 1758. Journal of Wildlife Research, 4:42-59.
  • Ramesh K. and McGowan P. 2009, On the current status of Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus
  • (Aves: Galliformes: Phasinidae): keeping the common species common. JoTT Communication, 1:106-108.
  • Sahajpal V. and Goyal P.S. 2008, Identification of shed or plucked origin of Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) tail feathers: Preliminary findings. Science and Justice, 48:76-78.