Black-necked crane counting in Arunachal

Itanagar: Black-necked crane, a rare bird species found in high altitude, has been spotted at Zemithang valley in Arunachal Pradesh by the Indian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund for the first time. So long there were only reports of the bird`s sighting in the valley in Twang district, located at an altitude of 2000 metres above sea level near the China border, but no photographic evidence.

Bird-watchers are thrilled at the prospect of seeing the rare bird which is believed to be an embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama by Tibetan Buddhists and is revered by the Monpas. After eluding scientific documentation for years, the WWF (India) has come out with photographic records of seven black-necked cranes in the Zemithang valley so far this year.

The senior coordinator of WWF-India`s Western Arunachal Landscape Programme, Pijush Kumar Dutta, said that the cranes were spotted by Lham Tsering of Pangchen Lumpo Muchat Community Conserved Area (CCA) and Kokti of Pangchen Lakhar, the only two community conserved areas in the state. One of the seven birds is only a year-old and took the first flight to India from the breeding site in the wetlands of the Tibetan plateau.

Though there were reports of black-necked cranes spending winter in Zemithang, there was no authentic first-hand documentation. Last year, we photographed the arrival of black-necked cranes at Zemithang, Dutta said. The birds are found in India, China and Bhutan and breed in high-altitude wetlands of the Tibetan plateau of China and eastern Ladakh in India at an elevation ranging from 2950 to 4900 meters above mean sea level. During winter, the birds flock to Tibet, Yunnan and Guizhou in China and Phobjika and Bomdaling valleys in Bhutan and in Arunachal Pradesh`s Sangte and Zemithang valleys.

The global population of black-necked crane is estimated to be 11,000 and is included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) vulnerable category.

The Ministry of Environment and Forest, WWF-India, Bombay Natural History Society and the Indian Bird Conservation Network last year adopted a slew of measures for conservation of the species in India and Bhutan, Dutta said.

Monpas don`t hunt any wildlife and black-necked cranes are very safe in Zemithang. Now, we are helping the community to promote eco-tourism in the area under our CCA programme, said Dutta.

As Zemithang is out of bounds for foreign tourists and trekking is not allowed, Dutta said talks are on at the government level to promote bird-watching tours in the area.

Through community initiative, a home-stay facility for tourists has also come up at Zemithang and youths have been trained as guides. If the government allows tourism, it will be a big incentive for the Monpas, said Dutta.

There was concern among conservationists at the reports of reduced sighting of the birds in the valley. Only three arrivals were recorded there during 2010. The rare bird, locally known as Dhung Dhung Karma, is the only high altitude crane amongst the 15 species found in the world.

During breeding season, it is confined to high altitude wetlands and marshes in Quinghai-Tibetan Plateau and from eastern Ladakh to Sichuan province. The winter population of the crane is found in the lower altitudes of Quinghai, on the Yunnan Guizhou Plateau and in north-eastern Bhutan.

Zemithang and Sangty valley in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh are the only two winter habitats for the avian species in India. The villagers with the support of WWF-India have been actively working for conservation of rare wildlife found in the area, including Red Panda, Himalayan Black Bear, Musk Dear, and Leopard.

These birds, listed as `threatened` by Birdlife International, are also benefitting the villagers economically as they have set up camp sites and home stays facilities in Lumpo and Muchat villages for tourists with the help of WWF-India, Dutta said.