We are witnessing a human-driven mass extinction of species and ecosystems across our planet. One of the greatest causes of this biodiversity loss is land conversion, in particular, for agriculture.

As a result, mainstream conservation today often tends to focus on protecting pristine habitat, yet small forest fragments isolated between farmed land are a common sight throughout the world. This farmed land can play a critical role in supporting threatened forest wildlife.

New research shows how this land use matrix has provided benefits for one of the world’s most spectacular birds. Once common across South-east Asia, the green peafowl has been a victim of land use change, as well as intense poaching. Categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, it is now absent entirely from much of its former range.

A green peafowl foraging. Photo: Niti Sukumal.

In an agricultural area of central Myanmar however, the species continues to thrive. Led by the Conservation Ecology Programme at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (Thailand) and Friends of Wildlife (Myanmar) and assisted by Chester Zoo and Fauna & Flora International, scientists have now determined why.

Myanmar itself is changing and farming practices are transitioning from traditional subsistence methods to more intensive agriculture techniques. Despite this, the landscape in many parts of Myanmar retains small fragments of forest around monasteries and temples that are protected by the religious communities who live there. These areas often harbour populations of wildlife.

One such fragment is found in the south of Shan State in the eastern part of the country, around the community of Pwe Hla village. Here a unique partnership between a community run environmental group, Pwe Hla Environmental Conservation and Development – PHECAD, and the Buddhist monks of Nan Kone Buddha Monastery, has afforded protection to the green peafowl living in the surviving forest on the monastery’s grounds. It was this area that provided the focus for this research. The study set out to determine how peafowl responded to the existence of non-intensive subsistence agricultural areas around the forest habitat, and make recommendations for the sustainable management for the species in this scenario.

A male green peafowl displaying its tail feathers.

Over the course of a year, the authors ran a transect study across the region. Four distinct habitat types cover the area. Forest fragments dominated by pine and evergreen species are surrounded by areas of scrub – consisting of rocky ground and sparse vegetation, crop – consisting of a variety of subsistence agriculture plants, or fallow – the uncultivated fields on which no crop is grown.

While they found that the green peafowl prefers forest to the surrounding habitat types, this is not the full story. Peafowl observations outside of the forest fragments occurred largely within a 300 m ‘buffer zone’ near the forest edge. Of the three habitat types within this 300 m range, cropland was significantly preferred over scrub and fallow.

So why does this occur? Observations and call records across the three non-forest habitats suggest that cropland does not offer any reduced detectability, so it is unlikely predator avoidance is the reason for the preference. The main reason is likely to be because cropland is home to the invertebrates that are so crucial for young galliform diets in the first 6 to 8 weeks of life, providing a reliable feeding ground for young birds, as well as adults.

A green peafowl perching in a tree. Photo: Niti Sukumal.

The apparent nutritional benefit of subsistence cropland for the birds is, however, under threat from increased use of pesticides, as agriculture intensifies in the area. There is hope that the local environmental group, working with the monks, can encourage and support sustainable agricultural practices in the area that will reduce this threat.

This example of a religious community working with a local environmental group to prevent the extinction of an iconic species can provide a much-needed model for conservation across landscapes away from protected areas.

Green peafowl conservation shows that although we rightly strive to preserve pristine forests, we must consider what unexpected locations and living practices might also have value in preventing extinction across the wider landscape.

The article Importance of isolated forest fragments and low intensity agriculture for the long-term conservation of the green peafowl Pavo muticus is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Simon Dowell – Science Director at Chester Zoo

Ben Evans – Science & Conservation Communications Officer at Chester Zoo

Nathan Williams – Communications Executive at Fauna & Flora International