Conservation Issues of the State Bird of J&K: The Black Necked Crane

Conservation Issues of the State Bird of J&K: The Black Necked Crane
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DR. KHURSHID AHMAD TARIQ

Cranes are delightful, long beaked birds of great eco-tourism importance. As per the data base of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), fifteen (15) species of Cranes have been recognized and described in various parts of the world. The ICF housed at Baraboo, Wisconsin, USA supports research, awareness, conservation and management programmes worldwide to protect and preserve cranes and their habitats. The ICF is known for organizing regular symposia, workshops and meetings to create awareness about the importance of Cranes and the need to protect their species richness.
The Black-necked Crane (BNC) is zoologically known as Grus nigricollis, is the only crane species endemic to eastern Himalayan regions including parts of India, China, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal found at elevations of 2950-4900 m above mean sea level, hence, also called the Alpine Crane. It was first discovered by the Russian naturalist (Count Przhewalski) near Lake Koko Nor in northeastern Tibet in 1876.
Brief Description: The BNC is the state bird of J&K with great wild life and ecotourism importance. It is a majestic migratory bird known for its peculiar features and is a great attraction for birders and tourists. The BNC is about 4-5 feet in size and weighs 5-6 kg and is pale grey in colour, having a black coloured neck and tail with characteristic yellow iris of the eyes.
It breeds during late spring and summer in the high altitude wetlands, marshes and lakes of Tibetan Plateau (Parts of Ladakh, the Lake Koko Nor Region in Tsinghai/Qinghai of Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Sichuan (China) and also in few places of Nepal. Pertinently, the impact of global warming on the Tibetan Plateau has attracted the attention of scientists worldwide keeping in view the vast stretches of glaciers and its other ecological features. Therefore, this bird might be facing a great challenge to thrive under changing climatic conditions of Tibetan Plateau/Himalayan Plateau. In fact, research has already pointed out that due to altered climatic conditions and resulting scarcity of food in the areas of Tibetan Plateau, this bird is under severe threat. Its present day estimated population is only 10,070-10,970 globally (Birdlife International, 2012).
Behaviour: The BNC is known for its altitudinal migration between higher and lower elevations of eastern Himalayas. In autumn, the BNC spends most of the time in foraging and storing extra energy in preparation for migration. During winters, they descend to lower altitudes between 1900-3950 m above mean sea leveland feed on the leftovers in agriculture field particularly paddy and potato. The major wintering areas of BNC include Tsokar, Puga, Staklung, Hanle and Chusul wetlands of eastern Ladakh, Sangti and Zimithang valleys of Arunachal Pradesh, parts of Sikkim in India, parts of Tibet Yunnan and Guizhou regions of China and the Phobjikaand Bomdaling valley of Bhutan.
The BNC’s are quite social and forage in small groups by walking in wetlands, shallow streams, marshes and pastures. They often fly between their foraging and resting places during morning and evening hours and are omnivorous in habit; their diet consists of plant roots and tubers, grains, insects, snails, shrimp, fish, frogs, lizards, and so on. The BNC are known to produce very impressive, high pitched, penetrating and trumpeting calls during their visit to feeding areas .Leg stretching and jumping are also witnessed during feeding times. (These behaviours are quite enchanting for bird watchers)
The BNC’s have strong social, cultural and religious importance in India, China, Bhutan and Tibet with particularly great cultural significance in Bhutan, where crane festivals are held annually in the month of November to celebrate the arrival of BNC from Tibet for overwintering.
Threats and Conservation Issues: The BNC is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2009) due to habitat alteration and degradation related to climate change, changes in agriculture practices, industrialization, pollution, environmental contamination and indiscriminate poaching. It is listed in the Schedule I of Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act. 1972 and J&K Wildlife (Protection) Act. 1978. It also finds a mention in the Appendix-I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and is also in the appendix of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. Therefore, BNC has assumed much importance worldwide.
The crane in contention has restricted range and population in India, therefore, it has been included in the “Species Recovery Programme” of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The threats to BNC have been classified into four major categories, viz. biological (loss of habitat, predators, food shortage and competition from other animals), social (hunting, trapping, killing), political (international conflicts, lack of well-defined law and policies) and natural (mortality, diseases, calamities) threats. Of the four major threats, the biological threat (mainly loss and alteration of their habitat) is of major concern, because human pressure on the wetlands has increased to a large extent over the last few decades. Similarly, increased grazing pressure on the limited pastures adjacent the wetlands is also responsible for the degradation of their habitat. The use of various pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture has further created problems for their survival. Besides, the unregulated tourism and climate change are other severe emerging threats to BNC.
The international cooperation between India, China and Bhutan on the status and breeding productivity of the species has proved very fruitful in managing their populations. Besides, the regular education and awareness activities of local communities, armed forces, tourists and tour operators has significantly helped in protecting their populations. However, another major threat to their survival has emerged in the form of feral dogs owned both by local nomads as well as armed forces which damage their eggs and chicks in Ladakh. Common Ravens (Khata in Ladakh) are also of significant importance as their nest predators in Ladakh. Leopards also have been documented of great threat to adult and young cranes during wintering in Ladakh. Therefore, BNC is under continuous threat.
The WWF-India, Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India, Bombay Natural History Society and Indian Bird conservation Network are taking every possible measure for conservation of BNC in collaboration with Bhutan, Tibet and China. The WWF-India provides support for the protection and restoration of key wetlands and other habitats to safeguard and conserve BNC.Similarly, the WWF-India in collaboration with the Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K State, has been working towards conservation of high altitude wetlands in Ladakh region to preserve this species on priority basis.
The year 2018 is being celebrated as the year of birds as designated by the U.S. National Geographic Society. Worldwide awareness and conservation seminars and workshops are being conducted for protecting the future of birds. As a mark of celebration to birds, the responsibility is quite high on us in view of state bird status of BNC for J&K State. A comprehensive crane conservation plan with minimum scope of poaching and encouraged farming in their foraging areas to ensure continuous food supply should be formulated. Coordinated surveys with emphasis on ecological and behavioral studies will help in the effective management, improvement and protection of their habitats. The time to act is now!

The Author is an Assistant Professor of Zoology at Islamia College, Srinagar. He can be reached at: drkatariq@gmail.com