A snow leopard in the Hemis National Park and Black-necked cranes at Tso Kar in Ladak. Photo: Snow Leopard Conservancy/Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department, Public Domain; By Dibyendu Ash/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
In August 2019, President Ram Nath Kovind gave assent to a legislation for bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories (UTs) – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The UTs came into existence on October 31, 2019. Among the many new tasks in front of the new local administrations was the identification and declaration of a new state bird and animal for the two UTs.
But a year and a half after their creation, Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir are yet to zero in on the same. This makes them the only two UTs in the country without these state symbols. These symbols play an important role in reflecting the state or Union Territory’s identity and driving conservation efforts for threatened species.
The former state of Jammu and Kashmir had the black-necked crane and Kashmir stag (Hangul) as its state bird and state animal. Both species are rare and had been symbols of the state for a long time. But the black-necked crane is found only in Eastern Ladakh and the Hangul is found only in Kashmir Valley. So, following the bifurcation into separate administrative divisions, the black-necked crane could no longer be the state bird for the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Hangul could no longer be the state animal of Ladakh.
“Every state and UT of India has symbols such as the state bird, animal and flower, which are recognised for their importance in that region. They are chosen from the unique flora and fauna in the State and UT, and represent the culture and the natural wonders of that particular State/UT. These symbols play a vital role in boosting conservation and protection efforts, and shine a spotlight on species that are integral to a state or UT,” says Vidyut Jha, a wildlife researcher.
Ladakh environmentalists push for selection of state symbols
Local wildlife bodies are pitching in to help speed up the selection process by submitting their suggestions to the local administration of Ladakh. In December 2020, the Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh (WCBCL), an NGO working for the preservation of wildlife in the region, called on Lieutenant Governor R.K. Mathur at the Raj Bhawan. The delegation, led by its president Lobzang Visuddha and secretary Dorjey Daya, batted strongly for naming the black-necked crane as the state bird and snow leopard as the state animal of Ladakh.
“It was a great appointment with the head of the UT. He was apprised about the high concentration of avifauna species in the UT and the importance of sensitising the local youth and general public to conserve and protect these species. His response was very positive and his office even tweeted our proposal after the meeting. He agreed that Ladakh is rich in terms of wildlife. We are positive that our proposal of recommending black-necked crane as the state bird and snow leopard as the state animal will get the nod,” says Visuddha.
In India, Ladakh is the snow leopard’s main habitat, followed by the Lahul-Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh. The leopard is the region’s apex predator and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Experts put the population of snow leopards to be between 200-300 individuals in Ladakh alone and speak about the fragile relation of their healthy population to overall natural health of the mountains. “Ladakh is internationally known as the snow leopard capital of the world. A lot of attention is given to conservation in the region because of this species. Hence, it was our pick,” says Visuddha.
The black-necked crane, meanwhile, found only in Eastern Ladakh’s high-altitude wetlands and marshes and is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. The birds arrive here as early as March for breeding and leave by October end or early November. Their habitat loss could lead to the extinction of this species, at least from this region.
“Ladakh is the only summer breeding ground for the bird in India and the number of breeding pairs are under 20 in the country at the moment. The black-necked crane also commands high respect in the region. There are local songs that sing its praises. It is already a flagship species and many research projects are on in the Ladakh UT for its conservation. This makes it a top contender for the State Bird,” says Visuddha.
Other contenders for state symbols
The snow leopard and the black-necked crane aren’t the only contenders for the position of the state animal and state bird. Ladakh is a wildlife haven. “The Ladakh Urial (endemic to the region), the Asiatic ibex or even the Himalayan brown bear could also be chosen. Lesser-known and rare species such as the Pallas’s cat, Eurasian lynx, Tibetan argali, Tibetan antelope or Tibetan gazelle could also be considered. Even the wild yak called Dong could be picked. The wild yak and Tibetan antelope are found only in the easternmost border area of Ladakh called Chang Chenmo. Except for border security personnel, no one is allowed in the region without special permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs,” says Jha.
Among birds, over 300 bird species are spotted in Ladakh. “I would pick the Sellim’s Finch as the State Bird, only if we are able to capture photographic evidence of its presence in Ladakh. I am sure that the north-eastern border of Ladakh is the only habitat for this species. I would also go for the great rosefinch, Eurasian eagle owl, Tibetan snowcock or the Eurasian golden oriole,” says Visuddha.
But it is only the local administration that can give the final nod. They are currently reviewing the proposals and the final selection is expected soon. According to the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh, “Members of the WCBCL called on LG R.K. Mathur. Through a presentation, they apprised the LG of the different species of birds and mammals of Ladakh. LG Mathur appreciated their initiative and assured his support in their projects. The WCBCL proposed the snow leopard and the black-necked crane be announced as the State Animal and Bird of the UT of Ladakh.”
This article was first published in Mongabay India.