Black-necked cranes near first addition to Manas National Park. Photo: Sanatan Deka/WTI, February 19, 2021.
New Delhi: In a first in Assam’s recorded history of wildlife sightings, observers spotted two black-necked cranes at the state’s Manas National Park this week.
Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) confirmed the sighting to The Wire Science and said, “The birds were sighted by Tiken Chandra Ray at Chaurang village in the Panbari Range of the park. He found the birds seven days ago.”
He added that “some villagers had tried to kill the birds” while “some others requested them to do no harm or disturb the birds.”
“So they have been there for the last one week, in the paddy field outside the southern boundary of the first addition to Manas National Park.”
Black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) are listed as being ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List. In Northeast India, these high-altitude migratory birds are typically sighted only in Tawang district of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. They used to land in the Subansiri valley as well but there have been records of sightings here since 1975.
The bird is also seen from time to time around Pangong Tso in Ladakh and in some parts of China.
The Manas stretch of Assam is contiguous to Bhutan, where the bird is spotted more often than it is in Arunachal. (Black-necked cranes are endemic to the Tibetan Plateau.) Every year, at the Gangtey Goemba in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley, people organise a festival to celebrate the arrival of these birds, which are considered sacred in Buddhism, and to spread awareness about the importance of not hunting the bird.
The spiritual connection prompted monks in Tawang some years ago to approach the Supreme Court of India to stay the construction of a few dams in the area, since this work was affecting the surrounding wetlands, where the birds spend their winter.
The Monpa community in particular holds black-necked cranes in high stature because the sixth Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Tsangyang Gyatso, born in Tawang, had paid it glowing tributes in the 17th century.
The birds skipped Tawang altogether in 2017, and showed up a few times between 2018 and 2020. This year, observers have not yet confirmed its presence in Tawang.
Barman said that Ray, who spotted the pair of black-necked cranes, has been involved in various conservation programmes implemented by WTI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare in the greater Manas area.
“It is a time to cheer, though it is difficult to say why they have come to Assam’s plains, as they are visitors to high altitude areas of Arunachal and Bhutan,” Barman speculated about what could have brought the birds to Manas. “The greater Manas landscape will be proud to host them here regularly. It is our duty now to protect them here.”
News of the black-necked crane’s presence in Manas comes on the heels of another similarly unusual but good development: the presence of a Mandarin duck in the Maguri-Motapung wetland near Tinsukia district. A local birder named Madhab Gogoi first spotted it on February 8 and said it left the area two days later.
The Baghjan gas-well had blown out in May 2020, spilling burning oil and other hydrocarbon contaminants into the wetland, and devastated its flora and fauna.