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The Black-necked Crane of Ladakh: Dark Wings of Majesty

By Arka Chakarborty

Let’s talk about birds. These members of the avian family feature prominently in the human

imagination across cultures. Sometimes their flight is romanticized as a symbol of freedom. At other times their sweet chirping sounds are seen as akin to songs. Depending on the species, they can sometimes be seen as delicate and harmless beings of nature and at other times as skilled predators. All of them, however, serve to enrich and maintain the ecological balance in the environments they inhabit. In India, there are more than 1350 species of birds (Perinchery, 2023), some thriving while others at various stages of risk in a world that is increasingly becoming hostile to its feathery inhabitants. Among all these species, the Black-necked cranes which flock in and around marshlands, agricultural fields and lakes in the high-altitude mountainous region of Ladakh is emblematic of majestic grace on the one hand and resilience in the face of a harsh and nearly-inhospitable environment on the other. While not critically endangered, these birds which are celebrated in Ladakh’s culture are facing numerous challenges.

There are around fifteen crane species spread across five continents in the world. The Black- necked cranes are the only alpine members of this group. Standing at a height of about 4-5 feet, these ‘regal, rather thickset’ cranes weigh around 5 kg each and are among the largest of all crane species. While the male and female members are around the same size, the males are slightly larger. These cranes have a body that is mostly black and gray or whitish, with a striking exception being the crown which has a patch of red on it. Their head, neck, primary and secondary flight feathers, legs, feet and tail are completely black. The plumage is gray or whitish. Their bills are greenish. They sport a dark, drooping ‘bustle’ of elongated feathers above the tail. The black of their head is stunningly contrasted by their piercing yellow eyes and the light gray spots that extend backwards from them. While sometimes described as medium sized, these cranes have an impressive wingspan of eight feet (WWF India; eBird, International Crane Foundation; Patil, 2020; Team Eka). Juveniles of the species have a brownish head and neck and a slightly paler plumage than the adults (WWF India). The Black-necked crane may be confused with the more abundant Common Crane and in that case one has to look out for the all dark neck and tail as distinguishing features.

The Black-necked cranes choose to live in isolated and hard-to-reach terrains, so much so that they were one of the last bird species to be discovered. It was the Russian explorer and geographer Nikolay Przhevalsky who first discovered the Black-necked cranes in the Tibetan plateau (1876) (Team Eka). The Black-necked cranes are migratory birds which spend roughly six months each annually in their breeding and wintering ranges. Overall, their range is distributed across parts of Mongolia, Bhutan, China and India. During March-April, they arrive in their breeding ranges (central China and parts of northern India) which are mainly alpine meadows, marshes, wetlands and areas near lakes. In India itself, this breeding range is located mostly in the Changthang region of Ladakh, especially around lakes like Tso Kar, Tso Moriri, Pongang, Choshul and Hanle. Before the breeding season, the Black-necked cranes engage in a stunning courtship ritual which involves song and dance! While not uncommon among animals, this ritual has had a deep imprint in Ladakhi culture and has inspired the creation and practice of the Chartses dance which is an important part of the festivals of Ladakh. They build their nests in wetlands where the water is nearly thirty centimeters deep in order to protect their eggs and young from predators. During October, the cranes travel to spend their winters in lower altitudes in areas like Bhutan (Phobjikha valley and Khotokha valley), parts of southern China and Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Sikkim and recently in Assam in India. During winters, they prefer areas near agricultural fields. The arduous journey covering a distance of 1500 kilometers that the black-necked cranes undertake to move between their breeding and wintering ranges every year is a testament to their resilience in the face of hardship (International Crane Foundation; Patil, 2020; Team Eka). This resilience is further exhibited by the dietary habits of these cranes which enable them to survive and even thrive in usually unforgiving high-altitude environments. They eat roots, rodents, small insects, tubers, snails, shrimp, fish, frogs, lizards, voles and waste grain (International Crane Foundation).

The Black-necked crane was the state bird of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. On August 5, 2019, the Centre abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution. This was followed by the bifurcation of the former state into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. In late 2021, the UT of Ladakh declared that the Black-necked crane would remain as its state bird (Dutta, 2021). This was partly because of the fact that Eastern Ladakh is the only known breeding range of the crane outside China (Dutta, 2021) but there is more to it than that. The Black-necked crane is in fact celebrated and revered as an integral part of Ladakhi culture. The way that the Chartses dance of Ladakhi festivals is inspired by the beautiful mating ritual of the cranes has already been mentioned. Painted images of these majestic birds are replete in the thangkas or paintings of the Buddhist monasteries spread across Ladakh. These images are exhibited alongside the holy paintings of these monasteries which is indicative of the sacred status that the Black-necked crane has in Tibetan Buddhism. It is, in fact, seen as the embodiment of the Sixth Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhist tradition! It is also believed that earlier Dalai Lamas used to travel from one monastery to another on the backs of these graceful cranes (Team Eka). Moreover, in Ladakhi popular culture it is believed that the sighting of a Black-necked crane in its natural habitat is a sign of good luck (Parvaiz, 2018).

Despite being such an integral part of Ladakh’s culture, the Black-necked crane is facing unique challenges that are making its survival difficult. Worldwide, its population is estimated to be around 6600-6800 (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2020). In India, however, this figure is significantly smaller. According to a study conducted by Zoological Research, the population of Black-necked cranes in Ladakh as of 2012 was 112 which included 17 breeding pairs (Parvaiz, 2018). By other estimates, this population might be even smaller: a survey conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2016-17 found that the Black-necked crane population in Ladakh was only 66-69 individuals, while the wintering population in Arunachal Pradesh was estimated at 11 individuals (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. 2024).

In its latest reassessment of the situation of the Black-necked crane, the IUCN has downgraded its endangerment status from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Near Threatened.’ Some, however, do not agree with this assessment, claiming that downgrading the species in such a way might unintentionally put it at more risk. Narendra Patil, a researcher who has worked on the status of Black necked crane with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, Wildlife Conservation and Bird Club of Ladakh and the Nature Conservation Foundation, emphasizes the need to take into account the localized threats to Black-necked crane populations, going as far as to state that it might face local extinctions (Patil, 2020). In Ladakh, for example, the Black-necked crane faces the dual danger of habitat loss due to human- and climate change-related developments and, more recently, the rise of feral dogs as a distinct and direct threat to the crane population in particular and wildlife in general. Human pressure and pressure caused due to grazing has led to the degradation and loss of wetlands, which are among the principal breeding environments for the Black-necked cranes (WWF India). A recent survey found that the population of dogs in Changthang was around 3500 and of these, about 1200 dogs were in a radius buffer of 10 kilometers from 13 breeding sites of Black-necked cranes (Parvaiz, 2018). These dogs, many of them kept by the military and members of the nomadic community, disrupt the breeding process of the Black-necked cranes by preying on their eggs and chicks. The dog population is able to thrive because of the food waste generated in military and tourist encampments. Sterilization drives conducted by the government in order to bring the dog population under control have, as of 2018, borne no fruit (Parvaiz, 2018; Patil, 2020). While the IUCN deems the population of the Black-necked cranes to be ‘stable,’ there are a lot of steps to take in order to truly ensure the security of these majestic birds, at least in India (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2020). Patil (2020) strongly asserts that the ‘vulnerable’ status of the Black-necked cranes made governments pay attention to their protection and downgrading their status may lead to the removal or loosening of some of the measures adopted to ensure their protection.

The ‘state bird’ status of the Black-necked crane has eased access to much-needed attention and assistance from the government as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations in ensuring its continued conservation. In February, 2024, the Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Shri Ashwini Kumar Choubey formally informed the Lok Sabha the initiatives taken by the Ministry to protect the Black-necked cranes. This species is listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 which grants it the highest degree of protection. It is also listed in Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora and the Convention on Conservation of Migratory Species. Some of the important habitats of Black-necked cranes like the Changthang sanctuary have been designated as Protected Areas. In December, 2020, the Tso Kar Wetlands Complex has been notified as a Ramsar Site. Numerous other measures taken to ensure the protection of wildlife in general have also contributed to the conservation of Black-necked cranes (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. 2024).

World Wildlife Fund India is also doing its best to increase the protection of Black-necked cranes. It works with the government to ensure high-altitude wetland conservation which is important to make sure that the habitat of the Black-necked cranes remains healthy. They have organized educational drives to raise awareness about the species among the local community, the Indian Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Tourists and Tour Operators. At the regional level, the organization is trying to promote cooperation between India, China and Bhutan regarding the conservation of this crane. Local educational institutions and the local young people are also being involved in the conservation of this species. In Arunachal Pradesh, the small wintering population is also being protected (WWF India).

The Black-necked cranes are not just graceful creatures. They are an inextricable part of the cultural ethos of Ladakh. Ladakhis celebrate these cranes as both a part of popular culture and as a part of Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Habitat destruction and threats generated due to unregulated human activities have led to a loss of safety for the small Black-necked crane population in India. However, the continued efforts of the government and other conscious organizations portray a hopeful future for these royal cranes.


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