Bhutanese school children dressed as black-necked cranes perfom a dance at a festival, 2021. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
- This ground report is the second of two about a community’s religious beliefs and their role in conservation, explored through the community members’ lived experiences.
- A closer look at the Black Necked Crane Festival at Gangteng, Bhutan, reveals the significant role it has played in cementing the religio-cultural ethos of the local communities.
- Bhutan’s model has shown that providing a sustainable means of livelihood to the local communities is at the core of its success with preserving the habitat of these birds
Phobjikha Valley, Wangduephodrang, Bhutan: The travel agent in Paro town of Bhutan was mildly surprised. We had told him we wished to visit the Phobjikha Valley in Wangduephodrang – just to attend an annual festival dedicated to a migratory bird the Bhutanese consider sacred.
“Indian visitors usually don’t show interest in it,” he said.
The next morning, when we arrived at the pretty U-shaped Phobjikha valley in western Bhutan, we were among just a handful of Indians at the hub of the festival – Gangteng village.
The picturesque alpine village was otherwise humming with tourists from the West armed with high-tech cameras. Many foreign visitors had been staying at Gangteng for over a week to be able to attend the annual festival, which is dedicated to the arrival of a migratory bird – the black-necked crane – to the village’s wetlands and farm yards.
Like every November 11, all roads in Gangteng on that day in 2019 led to the Gangtey dzong (monastery), a 17th century wood and stone edifice held in high esteem by the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Placed on a spur in the village and bounded on one side by the Himalayan Black Mountains, the more-than-four-century-old monastery’s sizeable courtyard offers a stunning open air stage to the colourful ‘Black Neck Crane Festival’.
The day-long annual event, a ticketed affair for tourists, also sees a huge participation of villagers from across the valley – who fill up the audience space as well as participate in a number of traditional dances to stitch together a grand cultural spectacle for wide-eyed visitors from around the world.
The primary motive of the organisers behind hosting the festival is to showcase to the visitors the place of significance the crane commands in the faith of the local communities – Tibetan Buddhism. But the platform is also to hold up how such a religious faith, in turn, has been successfully implemented in Gangteng as a conservation tool for the protection of the habitats of the cranes.
The crane species is classified as ‘vulnerable’ in the IUCN Red List, which makes the annual festival at once deserving of attention to those interested in protecting the species.
Considered an incarnation of the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), the crane, called ‘Thrung Thrung Karmo’ locally, finds mention in several Bhutanese folk songs and tales, as well as in art on the walls of people’s houses and business establishments and in paintings. We spotted a pair of cranes drawn on the main door of the Gangtey monastery as well. The Sixth Dalai Lama himself famously wrote a eulogy to the sacred bird in the 17th century, cementing its place in the spiritual canon.
The ‘holy’ bird lands on the wetlands and farmyards of Probjhika valley every October, after making three rounds over the monastery – a gesture that locals interpreted to us as a blessing to the devout, evocative of the Buddha.
“It is only after the bird blesses the valley by circling on the goenpa (gompa) that villagers of the valley sow the wheat crop. They believe only then it would give a good harvest. It remains in the valley until February,” a monk at Gangtey said.
“While leaving Probjikha for its summer abode in Tibet and China, the cranes again circle three times around the monastery. This circling is considered a blessing by the messengers of Buddha for peace and prosperity.”
Those local religio-cultural beliefs are well manifested in the traditional pageant presented by the villagers on the monastery podium every November 11 to the visitors. It includes a performance on a forest lore that features the bird through the idiom of the famous Bhutanese mask dance Drametse. The extravaganza also comprises a graceful dance exclusive to the festival. Called black-necked crane dance, it is performed by school children in black and white costumes to resemble the bird – and choreographed to imitate its mating rituals while wintering on the wetlands of the valley.
The collective bugling sound that the participants produced during the dance at the monastery created a near-natural effect for the viewers. When they mate, the cranes bow to each other, extending their wings and making loud cooing and tutting sounds.[[video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqQiGRL8Gk0]]
Though the black-necked crane has a long history around its sacredness, not just among the Tibetan Buddhists of Bhutan but also among the faithful across China, Tibet and in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh in India – a physical geography to which the bird is endemic.
In fact, it received its scientific name, Grus nigricollis, after a Russian naturalist, Count Prezhwalsjki, spotted it in 1876 at Lake Kokonor on the Tibetan plateau. It is understood to be the last of the 15 crane species in the world to have been discovered.
In Bhutan, though the cranes winter in the Khotokha valley, Bumthang in Chokor valley and in the Bumdeling valley as well, in Probjhika valley, it is sighted in droves, sometimes in the hundreds at once.
According to the Thimphu-based Royal Society for Conservation of Nature (RSPN), of the 500-600 black-necked cranes that fly in from China and the Tibetan plateau to winter in Bhutan every year, more than 500 are spotted in Probjhika alone. Aside from filling up the wetlands of Gangteng, while attending the festival in November too, it is not rare to spot a pair of cranes flying over the monastery.
In parts of Northeast India contiguous to Bhutan and Tibet, there are also examples of cranes enjoying the status of a sacred species among indigenous communities (among the Monpa of Arunachal Pradesh). There are also other migratory birds that are important in the cultural practices of other indigenous communities.
For instance, in Assam, the arrival of the migratory bird kuli – or the Asian koel – every spring ushers in the onset of the local communities’ biggest festival, Bohag Bihu. But only in Bhutan have we seen a migratory bird to be so important to the native population that the people carved out an annual festival around its arrival, thus also driving home the point that the bird’s habitats need protection with their participation.
This leads to the question then, while faith of a community on a wild species may work as a base for its conservation, can a festival curated to celebrate such a belief be an added component to make it a success story?
Festival as a conservation tool
The Bhutan experience has shown that while the religious beliefs and spirituality surrounding the bird is old, the festival needn’t be. The formal celebration of the bird’s arrival on the wetlands of Probjhika began only in 1999.
A closer look Black Necked Crane Festival at Gangteng reveals the significant role it has played in cementing the religio-cultural ethos of the local communities.
The festival was conceived by RSPN in collaboration with International Crane Foundation based in Wisconsin in the United States. RSPN is Bhutan’s largest non-governmental organisation which, through a royal edict, has been working in multiple areas for conservation of the nature’s treasures in that country.
Since its inception in 1987, RSPN has been successfully pushing the agenda of involving the common Bhutanese in the conservation of their country’s environment by helping in kicking up their awareness level, and also providing them sustainable livelihood opportunities besides engaging with international experts to back up the projects with adequate scientific knowhow.
The larger objective has been to sculpt an environmentally sustainable society linked to the globally feted concept of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness; make each Bhutanese the custodian and stakeholder of the country’s environment.
The Black Necked Crane Festival was designed to augment that objective too. The festival is celebrated on November 11 also because it coincides with the birth anniversary of Bhutan’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuk who has been instrumental in formulating initiatives for preservation of the country’s environment including ideating Gross National Happiness.
The Bhutan example has, however, clearly shown that prior to hosting a festival hinged on local religious beliefs, a suitable turf needs to be created too. That the Bhutan model has been successful is also because the RSPN successfully followed that trajectory.
Since the bird is revered as holy by the Bhutanese, it never faced direct harm from the local communities in Probjhika. “In fact, the local communities believe their land is blessed if the cranes land on their farmlands,” pointed out Jigme Tsering, the national coordinator for the RSPN’s black-necked crane division. It meant the religious belief could well be used as a base for conservation.
“Therefore, our task of educating the community was mainly on the scientific front. Basically, informing them about the need of the species and how our ‘developmental activities’ would harm the cranes,” Jigme said.
To push those points, it needed hard data, particularly to bring in some legal teeth to push the conservation drive. According to Jigme, RSPN has begun monitoring and keeping records on the cranes since 1986-1987 – much before the festival became a reality. “Little was known about the species and their status till then. The Probjhika valley was not under any protected system. Therefore, under the Royal command, RSPN was established to manage the valley and its environment,” he told The Wire.
In 1995, the basic legal work required to add a thrust to its conservation was achieved; the crane was granted the highest legal protection in Bhutan by bringing it under Schedule I of the Forest and Nature Conservation Act. Today, not only the Probjhika valley but the Khotokha valley has also been declared Ramsar sites which means the wetlands have received attention as sites of international importance.
With legal protection in place, the next extent of attention given to make the project a success seems to be around tailoring a sustainable means of livelihood for the local stakeholders.
Said Jigme, “The idea behind the festival was also to enhance the livelihood aspect of it through homestays and sale of the local products to the visitors.” He said RSPN initiated eco-tourism back in 2009 “whereby local youth were trained as guides on the valley areas; women were trained in making handicrafts and interested households were trained in hosting visitors.”
Jigme called the initiative a success because, “during the festival as well as during the entire crane season (from October end to February end), the homestays are packed with local and international guests.”
To leverage tourist footfall, the Bhutan government’s tourism department promotes the annual festival to foreign tourists and the stay options within the village.
A Gangteng villager and beneficiary of the homestay model, Norbu Wangmo, told The Wire, “Some years ago, I was financially helped by RSPN to renovate my existing house to make it a homestay. Several villagers who run homestays in Gangteng had got financial grants like me (RSPN organises such grants through its international donors). I have now two rooms where I host guests during the crane season.”
Since a western tourist is bound by a rule to spend a minimum of hundred US dollars a day during her stay in Bhutan, Wangmo earns 50-60 US dollars a night from both the rooms for each night of occupancy, a handsome sum for the resident of the remote region.
Before the RSPN intervention, Wangmo said he was a full-time agriculturalist.
“My main crop was the traditional one, paddy. My cropland is also where the cranes roost during the winter. In summer, I grow rice there. But how could I have left it fallow during the winter months if I had no other means of livelihood during those months. So I grew potatoes too. Now that I have an extra earning from homestay, a bit of which I can also save for a rainy day, I leave the field as it is after the rice harvest at the end of October. The cranes feed on pests and leftover grains of paddy.”
This is why RSPN’s to hold an annual festival is laudable. The idea is to provide the necessary leverage to the homestay and handicraft-sale components by creating a viable buyer base within the village itself in an organised fashion. No wonder then, every festival day, aside from the cultural extravaganza, an open field adjacent to the monastery becomes a village fairground.
Aside from a kiosk hosted by the organisers for the interested to gather information about the cranes where well-versed officials like Jigme are present to relate to an interested visitor their habitats, behaviour and why they need protection, we spotted multiple stalls manned by locals that stock their wares. If there are local artists drawing on the spot and selling their paintings of the crane, a short distance away are women in traditional Kira vending beautiful homespun shawls and t-shirts with the bird as the motif.
Some others had brought locally made cheese and wine to sell; stones picked from the banks of the rivers Nake Chuu and Phak Chuu flowing by the valley were being sold with the crane painted over it.
Food stalls selling butter tea to local cuisine were lining up the monastery entrance; so also heaps of fruits and vegetables, rice and pulse varieties grown by the valley dwellers brought to the monastery gate in heavy sacks – thus recreating for the western tourists a rustic Asian bazaar feel. In the middle of the fair stood a life-size replica of the black-necked crane as a reminder to the people the reason why they were assembled there.
One could also spot stalls selling Crane Boy, a children’s book with the black-necked crane as the theme, written by author and educator Diana Cohn in 2015, and postage stamps on the crane launched by the Bhutanese government some years ago.
Recalling the early years of the festival, Jigme, present at the 2019 edition of the festival, told us, “Initially, the festival was organised on the valley floor near the wetlands. However, the logistical arrangement in the open space required huge expenses, especially labour charges for erecting tents and movement of festival equipment.”
He said the Gangtey monastery rinpoche (abbot) came to their rescue; volunteered to fund the festival provided it was held at the monastery premises to which they agreed. “Now, the local committee, known as Gangtey-Phobji Environmental Management Committee, organises the festival through the fee collected from the visitors during the festival,” he added.
When asked about the number of sightings every year at Probjhika, Jigme’s answer exuded confidence in the success of the project, “The overall population trend is observed to be increasing.”
While the general belief around global ornithologists has been that the total population of these alpine cranes is between 8,000 and 11,000 individuals, based on the success of the conservation models like that of Bhutan, some do believe that its number has grown adequately. This is also the reason why BirdLife International, the authority of IUCN that grades these cranes, are considering a proposal to downgrade the bird from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern’.
On the ground, RSPN partners with the Department of Forest and Park Services to monitor the cranes and implement conservation policies and activities. A bird watching facility is maintained by RSPN by the wetlands at Probjhika along with the department for visitors. “The local communities are both the beneficiaries as well as partners in the management of the habitat of the birds,” according to Jigme.
Though, after the 2019 edition – it had seen nearly 400 foreign tourists – the festival has not been happening in the usual style due to the COVID-19 restrictions on entry of foreign tourists into the country. “In 2020, the festival was organised behind closed doors but we live-streamed the event on our facebook page. In 2021 too, we did the same thing,” Jigme said.
A good practice worth emulating?
COVID-19 restrictions aside, does the Bhutan model on successfully protecting the wintering sites of the black-necked cranes make it an example of best practices for the region?
The question is particularly relevant for Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh in India, where the annual number of sighting of the crane variety has not been encouraging and their winter habitats and wetlands are dwindling – even though the local Buddhist communities also hold the same religious and spiritual belief around the species as those of the Bhutanese.
Importantly, the Sixth Dalai Lama, who wrote the famous celebratory note to the crane, one of the primary reasons why the bird is feted as a sacred species by the believers of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan, was born in Arunachal.
Kamal Medhi, coordinator of the Western Arunachal Landscape for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-India), said India, specifically the Arunachal government, need to carve out a similar model as soon as possible if it didn’t want to lose altogether the habitats of the bird in the northeastern state.
“A sustainable model like that of Bhutan is the need of the hour in Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal, which have the crane’s wintering sites, and whose local communities are bound by the same religious beliefs. But to make such a model workable, it needs political will.
The Bhutan example has shown that it can be economically viable and local communities need not bypass the so-called development that, say, a hydropower project otherwise detrimental to the wintering site of the crane, could bring to their area. The government will also attract global praise for pushing a model that is environmentally sustainable.”
The conservationist was associated with the mass movement of the Monpa tribe of the Tawang district some years ago against the government’s decision then to set up a hydel project on the Nyamjang Chuu river in Zemithang even though it would eat up the wintering site of the cranes.
“My view is, do hydro projects in the state but leave out those areas which are critical to the protection of endangered species and the local environment and also have religious significance to the local communities,” he said.
Although, with the National Green Tribunal’s intervention in 2016, the hydropower project at Zemithang was dropped, the threat of the ecologically sensitive Tawang district from such projects is far from finished, especially because the local political forces have a big stake in their construction.
Phuntseng Tsering, a local Monpa youth in Zemithang, told The Wire in October 2021:
“However much our politicians pretend they are good Buddhists, but they will never be interested in promoting any such model to protect the sacred bird because the economic benefits of such a people-oriented model will then have to be shared with the common people like us.
Be it tourism or hydel projects, they want to keep all the financial benefits only to themselves.” Citing construction of a high-end hotel by the family of the Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu in Tawang town as an example, he said, “For a biodiversity rich place like ours, eco-tourism is the only answer (The Bhutan model has also highlighted it). But it looks like the government thinks otherwise. This multi-storey hotel in Tawang will soon be the biggest and the most luxurious facility for tourists in Tawang which also means reaping all the top profits from the tourism sector will only be for the powerful.
While residents of Tawang town are also being encouraged by the district administration to start homestays to accommodate both Indian and foreign tourists visiting the picturesque alpine zone, such a privilege is not allowed to the residents of Zemithang though.
“Even though we are in the same district, our area is closed for foreign tourists. The call has been taken by the defence forces apparently, citing proximity to the India-Tibet (China) international border even though we are more than two hours away from it. So we can’t even set up homestays to make a decent living,” another young man, Pakchong Tsering, told us.
The first part of the series highlighted the livelihood challenges the local population at Zemithang revenue circle, primarily farmers, face, which is leading some to engage in sand and gravel mining alongside the Nyamjang Chuu river. Such activities precariously close to the wetlands, in turn, disturb the cranes, causing them to skip the belt altogether at times.
The Bhutan model shows that providing a sustainable means of livelihood to the local communities is at the core of its success in preserving the habitat of the cranes. Financial grants to set up homestays for visitors during the crane season and training the women folk to produce handicrafts with the crane as the theme are some such successful interventions made in the Probjhika valley.
Further, the RSPN project also helped local farmers change their cultivation pattern and return to the traditional way of cropping. A Gangtey villager, Kinley, said he and several other farmers had shifted to potato farming, some of whom discarded rice cultivation altogether, to earn a better profit. “But that led to the cranes not landing on our fields because we took away their food. RSPN drilled into us why we should not grow potatoes and do paddy instead,” he said.
As we reported in the first part of the series, a similar change in cultivation pattern was noted in the Sangte and Chug valleys of Arunachal, two other wintering sites of the migratory bird in that state. Even though there was no government intervention, as per the village head of Sangte, the local people realised the folly on their own because the new rice varieties didn’t suit their health.
Several farmers have since been returning to farming the traditional red rice variety without chemical fertiliser, which, in turn, has helped the cranes find their food in the fields.
Two other deterrents to the arrival of the cranes in Arunachal, highlighted in the first part of the series, have been the overhead high tension power lines posing a threat to the flying cranes, and attacks by stray dogs while roosting on the fields. In Bhutan too, those were the bottlenecks before RSPN but were tackled with government’s support.
According to the Black Necked Crane Action Plan for Bhutan (2021-2025) of RSPN, Bhutan Power Corporation has replaced the overhead lines in the crane habitats with underground cables to mitigate the threat.
Additionally, sterilisation drives have been carried out of the stray dogs in and around the habitats in collaboration with the Department of Livestock and the Department of Forests and Park Services of Bhutan.
While WWF-India had helped villagers of Zemithang to set up solar fences to protect the crops damaged by wild animals – a successful drive which has now been adopted by the district administration of West Kameng too, villagers in Gangteng told us similar fencing had been installed by the government in the Probijha valley too to protect their farm yards from wild pigs.
“But during the crane season, we are not allowed to switch on the power plug to the fences as they may harm the cranes. So if you notice carefully, our areas also have the traditional stone fences to work as a natural barrier from them entering our yards,” said the Gangteng farmer, Kinley.
Because of the similar challenges faced by the crane across the border in Arunachal, the WWF, for over a decade now, has been facilitating knowledge sharing through workshops and seminars in India to foster international cooperation between Bhutan, India and China to protect the bird.
In 2011, WWF-India, the Union environment ministry, Bombay Natural History Society and Indian Bird conservation Network jointly organised a two-day workshop, ‘Cranes Calling: Regional Cooperation for Conservation of Black-necked Crane among Bhutan, China and India’ in New Delhi, attended by central government officials including the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. In 2015, WWF-India held a two-day India-Bhutan workshop on the species in collaboration with the state forest department at Dirang in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district.
The RSPN officials also attended the workshop and even visited the bird’s wintering sites in Sangte. However, when they reached Zemithang, they were at once ordered to leave the area by Indian defence forces as foreigners are not allowed in the area.
“Protecting the wintering site in Zemithang has an added component as they are simultaneously under defence administration too,” Medhi, who had taken part in the Dirang workshop, said.
Not that Bhutanese and Arunachalis have cut off all traditional relations because of border restrictions. Every year, at the revered Gorsam Chorten (monastery), located just a few kms short of Zemithang, Bhutanese pilgrims not only throng the annual fair but also set up stalls to sell their wares. “The rule is, foreigners are not allowed beyond Gorsam,” said Pakchong Tsering.
He said though no monastery holds any specific festival to celebrate the cranes considered sacred in their religion, “when our revered rinpoches (abbots) visit Gorsam during the festival, they do remind the people to not harm not just the cranes but other wild animals too.”
Worldwide though, conservation strategies have increasingly highlighted the need to harness the power religious and faith leaders hold over common people and states to help protect the sacred species.
Liza Zogib, IUCN’s co-chair of a specialist group that engages with faith leaders and religious groups to promote the protection of the sacred sites and the sacred species, and also the founder of a Switzerland-based NGO, highlighted the need to expand the conversation around conservation beyond ‘experts’.
“Conservation, to me, is a very western concept; it somehow promotes the thought that only the experts know how to protect a species, while communities have been doing that job for ages. It is the same with demarcating certain areas as national parks; it is again a western idea which alienates the local community from the species they have lived side by side in harmony. So it is time, we also bring in more points of view and stakeholders to the table which must include the faith leaders too because they hold power over people and also governments to help formulate environment friendly policies.”
Zogib’s contention was proved right in Arunachal when monks from the Tawang monastery led the public agitation against the hydropower project at Zemithang to protect the sacred cranes, forcing the government and the local politicians with vested interests to step back.
Lobsang Gyatso, the monk who had led the movement under the banner of Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), when asked about the power of the faith leaders to drive such environment-friendly movements, however, added a note of caution: “It is not always easy, particularly when the moral compass of the society weakens. It then helps the corrupt politicians and business class with vested interests to weaken such a movement.”
This report was funded by a Fellowship for Environment Journalists (FEJ) grant of the US-based Society of Environment Journalists (SEJ).