New Delhi: After failing to turn up last winter, the black-necked crane has reportedly returned to Arunachal Pradesh. Environmentalists and local communities are relieved, with good reason.
The black-necked crane is an endangered species classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. It finds mention in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and is considered sacred by the state’s Monpa community. (The sixth Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Tsangyang Gyatso, is reputed to have paid glowing tributes to this bird in the 17th century.) In fact, many look at the bird as an embodiment of the Dalai Lama. Finally, the black-necked crane is also Jammu and Kashmir’s state bird.
It spends the summer in the Tibetan plateau. During winter, it has been spotted in China, Vietnam, Bhutan and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. One such part is Subansiri Valley, although no black-necked cranes have been spotted here since 1975.
The birds used to migrate to their wintering sites in October and November. However, for the last few years, though they have been coming to Arunachal only in December. Some environmentalists blame climate change for the offset.
In April 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had suspended the environment ministry’s clearance for the Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project in Pangcheng Valley, Tawang. The order had been delivered in response to a petition filed by Save Mon Region Federation, a Tawang-based civil-society group, in 2012.
The 780-MW project was valued at Rs 6,400 crore and was being promoted by the LNJ Bhilwara Group, a steel conglomerate out of Noida. If completed, it would have submerged the migratory bird’s wintering site.
In its order, the NGT had noted that the ministry’s clearance had not factored in the project’s impact on the black-necked crane’s habitat, especially since the bird is also endemic to the area. It asked the ministry to undertake a fresh assessment, conduct new studies, public hearings, etc. before clearing the project.
The environment ministry decided not to challenge the order.
Later the same year, in December 2016, six black-necked cranes were reportedly spotted in the Zemithang area of Pangcheng Valley. No cranes could be spotted in 2017.
Now, according to The Arunachal Times, two cranes were spotted in Zemithang on December 3.
Daniel Mize, a zoologist at the Centre with Potential for Excellence in Biodiversity, Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar, told The Wire, “The NGT order has certainly [helped bring] back the bird to Zemithang but more needs to be done to protect all the wintering sites of the bird in the state.”
Environmentalists say that three areas of Arunachal Pradesh constitute the bird’s regular wintering sites in India. It is often spotted in a three-km stretch between Zemithang and Brokenthang by the Nyamjang Chhu river, about 50 km from Tawang. The other two spots are in Sangti Valley in the state’s West Kameng district.
According to local reports, two black-necked cranes were also sighted in Sangti village on December 4. So far, no sightings have been reported from the valley’s Chug village. A black-necked crane was last seen there in 2016.
Like the bird skipped its annual visit in 2017, it also skipped Sangti Valley between 2009 and 2013.
Mize said there could be many reasons for this. “One is of course the increase in the number of high tension wires. In 2007, one bird was electrocuted in Sangti and then in 2016, two others were killed. The government must think of laying underground cables in these sighting areas.”
He has been studying the species’s movement for some years in his personal capacity. He isn’t alone: the Wildlife Trust of India has also been recording the black-necked crane sightings in Arunachal for the last decade.
Their observations suggest the bird could be disturbed as its wintering sites become more urbanised.
“I was told by some villagers that, in 2017, two birds came to Sangti but didn’t land because there was a football match on nearby with lot of shouting,” Mize recalled. “There is also a rise in the number of dogs with [more] human habitation. Though we haven’t noted any incidents of dogs killing birds yet, this is also going to be a factor.”
In fact, there appears to be no dearth of threats.
For example, Mize highlighted sand-mining near the bird’s nesting sites. “It is okay to mine sand in summer but something must be done in winter to minimise action around the sites,” he said.
Of late, the Dirang area of Sangti Valley is being used by adventure sports enthusiasts and army personnel for parachuting, both of which also get “in the bird’s way”.
Most of these spots were remote villages until some years ago. However, with more roads came more vehicles, which disturbed the black-necked cranes further. “With the roads also come tourists looking for the birds. There are no dos and don’ts for them.”
“The people of the wintering sites are mostly devout Buddhists and inherently conscious of their environment,” Mize added. “So they do not harm the bird, but it is not enough. The government must organise public awareness drives to make the sites more conducive for the birds.
“After all, it is a unique feature of Arunachal Pradesh.”