Phobjikha Valley Sees Increasing Number Of Black-Necked Cranes – Birds Regarded As Sacred By The Bhutanese
Since October, close to 270 black-necked cranes have already arrived in the Phobjikha Valley.
By Phub Gyem | BBS
The Phobjikha Valley, a popular winter roosting ground for the majestic black-necked cranes, is also the largest protected wetland for the endangered birds.
The valley has been seeing an increase in the number of these endangered birds over the years. It hosted more than 500 cranes from October 2017 to February 2018. Since October, close to 270 have already arrived this year.
As winter approaches, the black-necked cranes will make their annual pilgrimage to the Phobjikha Valley around October where they usually remain until the following April.
For the Bhutanese, these endangered birds are deeply revered and some believe that they are the reincarnation of two deities who are the guardians of the Phobjikha Valley.
Upon their arrival and departure, these graceful birds will circle the Gangtey Goenpa three times. To the locals, this act represents the honouring of the three sacred jewels of Buddhism.
Gangtey Goenpa Monastery
Source: Wind horse tours
The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) has been carrying out numerous activities in the valley to secure both foraging and roosting habitats for the cranes.
“The RSPN has worked in the valley for more than three decades now,” said Jigme Tshering, the Deputy Chief Project Officer of the Crane Conservation Project.
Getting the locals involved in the conservation of the black-necked cranes
Engaging with local communities to preserve the habitat remains at the heart of the crane conservation efforts by the RSPN’s Crane Conservation Project.
“We work with the local community there without undermining their livelihoods. It’s not like we are only protecting the habitat and forgetting the communities there,” Jigme Tshering said.
“The livelihoods of the community there also depend on the wetland. So, we work with the local community and then secure the habitats for the cranes.”
As a part of our efforts to conserve the habitat of black necked cranes, the RSPN has initiated environmentally friendly alternative energy sources in the valley. More than 200 households in the valley are now lit with the SPV solar home lights.
The RSPN has also initiated eco-tourism for the benefit of the community. It aims to create a model of community-based sustainable tourism that contributes to the conservation of the natural environment as well as to protect the cranes’ habitat.
Other protected habitats see fewer cranes
While the Phobjikha Valley has been witnessing increasing crane arrivals, the habitats in other parts of the country are seeing a decline.
Source: Bhutan ambassador holidays
The RSPN began keeping records of crane arrivals around mid-1980s. The Bumdeling Valley in Trashiyangtse used to see the highest number of cranes back then.
Conservationists attribute the decrease to the loss of habitat. Only 40 cranes arrived in Bumdeling so far this year.
“In Bumdelling, there has been both human pressure and natural factors, which led to the decrease in the number of crane population,” Jigme Tshering said.
Factors which caused the decrease in the number of black-necked crane arrivals
“From the ‘anthropogenic pressure’ perspective, it has mostly got to do with the decrease in foraging sites mainly caused by the abandonment of paddy fields by the local people because of human-wildlife conflict. From the natural angle, it was due to the annual flashfloods which washed away most parts of the paddy fields, as these are important foraging sites for the cranes,” he explained.
The roosting grounds in Bumthang, Lhuentse and Khotokha in Wangdue Phodrang have also been receiving fewer cranes. Only six cranes have arrived in Bumthang and seven in Khotokha so far this year.
“Habitats in the central regions like Bumthang were more affected by human pressure. There has been lots of development in Chamkhar,” Jigme Tshering said.
Source: Saving Cranes
“People used to say hundreds of cranes used to visit before but now for obvious reasons only one or two are found.”
The loss of habitat is not the only threat to the vulnerable bird species. It also falls prey to wild and stray animals.
“There are lots of predators. In Phobjikha, we have recorded the common leopards attacking the cranes through camera trappings. In other areas, it was mostly stray dogs,” Jigme Tshering said.
“We have been working with our partners there-the department of livestock. They have been trying to control the dog population. From the anthropogenic point of view, it’s mostly encroachment into their habitat and also changes in the land use pattern by the farmers.”
The RSPN maintains and restores the cranes’ roosts every year around mid-September, just before the birds’ arrival in the valley.
With the birds still arriving, crane conservationists are expecting to see more arrivals this year.
This article first appeared in BBS and has been edited for the Bhutan Times.