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Save the Black Necked Crane: Good Karma (LinkedIn, April 16, 2017).

Jun 7, 2017

black necked crane

The hope and wish to spot the vulnerable black necked cranes kept me going from Thimphu to Gangtey, in charming Bhutan. Thanks to the extensive road-works all along, the drive to the glacial Phobjikha valley, home of Gangteng Monastery and the host for the bird renowned ornithologist late Dr Salim Ali never got to see, turned out to be much longer than anticipated.


The black necked crane is categorized as ‘vulnerable’ in the red list of threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are winter visitors to the Phobjikha where they breed in summer. On arrival here they are seen to circumambulate the Gangteng Monastery three times and repeat this act as they begin to return to Tibetan plateau in early spring. The Monastery hosts a Black Necked Crane festival in its courtyard every year starting November 11. Revered as heavenly birds, their arrival is considered a good omen and echo of their calls is a source of spiritual happiness.

Just as we got closer to 3000 meters above the mean sea level, the interplay of clouds and light on the emerging landscape made every moment rather dramatic. Sighting the second highest peak in the Bhutanese Himalayas – Mount Jomolhari and other snow capped ranges, splendid red and pink rhododendrons, white orchids, nomads selling their wares including the yak cheese in the vast prairie like rugged terrain, the 108 colourful stupas at Dochula – was an exciting build up to the arrival in the glacial valley. The red pandas did not oblige. The Kalij pheasants and Tinkas – the red beaked crows did!

2Tour guide Yeshi kept the hope of spotting the elusive cranes in early April alive as he gets a fresh update from his WhatsApp network. “Guys, there could still be three of them around – two mature and a baby”. “No worries”, says he in American accent, “you will in the least see the injured Karma in his cage at the crane centre”. Some consolation! Karma he informs will never be able to fly again as he has permanently damaged his left wing.

As I check into my room at the Wangdu Lodge, on the periphery of the wetlands in the valley – where the cranes spend up to five months arriving late October or early November and departing late February or early March, Yeshi has some great news. There is a crane very close to our lodge. I rush out in time to take a few hurried pictures – before it flies off – from close enough to hear the flapping and cackle. The sunlight by then was already dimming inside the valley and lighting up the higher reaches of the surrounding mountains.

All three days at Gangtey the divine bird kept re-appearing. Why it chose not to follow the flock remains a mystery. I overheard some speculation at the Visitor Centre about its lack of fitness to fly the distance and altitude. However, it seems to be looking after itself alright and rather mindful of the preying eyes of wild dogs, leopards and foxes.

Perhaps it was one of these that disabled Karma, the caged resident at the Centre, managed by the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN). A mirror on the cage wall seems to dispel his loneliness. There is an ongoing appeal inviting contributions to look after him. As I take pictures, Yeshi points at what is supposed to be white portions of his wings which have begun to get darker!

5Supporters of the black necked cranes need to be mindful that their arrivals now attract increasing number of interested tourists. That means more construction, more chopped trees, growing agriculture and land acquisition around the wetlands, increasing vehicular activity – while the Gangteng monastery­­ ensures local community celebrates the connection – the economics could potentially threaten the bird’s eco-system.

The ICDP (Integrated Black Necked Crane Conservation & Development Program) introduced since 1999 successfully does the balancing act with the following goals:

  • Promote positive attitudes toward the conservation and habitat
  • Enhance economic opportunities for the local community
  • Conduct research on their habitat and threats
  • Develop Phobjikha into a model ecotourism destination
  • Enable self-sustainability of the PCAP (Phobjikha Conservation Area Program) committee with representation of all local stakeholders, with an emphasis on alternative income generating opportunities for local women.

While the RSPN seems to be in good control, any extra support will only keep the dramatic celebration ongoing for benefit of the posterity. In the meantime kindly do consider responding to the appeal.

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