The endangered majestic black-necked cranes are highly honoured in Bhutan

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The Bhutanese believe that the cranes were sent from the heavens as avatars of their ancestors.

About the black-necked cranes

The black-necked cranes are a sight to behold. Awe. Memorable. Delightful. These are just three of the many adjectives that tourists to Bhutan have used to describe the magnificent cranes.

Adult black-necked cranes are four-feet-tall with a red crown and long, thin legs. Their head, neck, wings and tail are black, save for a small light grey spot that stretches backwards from their yellow eyes, as well as ashy grey body feathers. Meanwhile, young cranes have a black and gray body with a cinnamon-brown head.

Black-necked cranes can be found in parts of central China and northern India, as well as the Himalayan mountains, including Bhutan. They descend from the higher Tibetan plateau to spend winter in Bhutan.

Between October and February every year, the birds settle in Phobjikha Valley, also known as Gangtey, surrounded by the Himalayan peaks. They stay there in the alpine wetlands until spring. 

It is said that when the black-necked cranes arrive in Gangtey, they circle above Gangtey Monastery three times before landing on the marsh. They will also repeat the ritual before they depart from Bhutan to Tibet. 

The farmers in Phobjikha Valley believe that the birds' presence brings blessings to their crops. For the Buddhists of Bhutan, the black-neck cranes were sent from the heavens as avatars of their ancestors and loved ones. The birds signify longevity, peace, and prosperity.

In fact, the birds are so important to the Bhutanese culture that they are painted on houses and shops throughout the country.

Likewise, tourists travel from all over the world to see them.

Although Phobjikha Valley is where the black-neck cranes usually spend the winter, the people of Gelephu in southern Bhutan had a pleasant surprise on 14th November 2011. Two pairs of black-necked cranes (two adults and two juveniles) were seen in the Sarpang District, enjoying the hot sun.

There were heavy overcast clouds at that time, possibly leading to the birds’ misdirection. The clouds must have impaired their visibility as they were in flight. Or perhaps, the birds were trying out new spots?

Black-necked cranes are omnivorous as they eat both insects and plants. Their diet consists mainly of plant roots, insects, snails, shrimps, fishes, frogs, lizards, voles, and waste grain. 

Due to their remote habitat, the black-necked cranes were only discovered in 1876. 

Present-day, the black-neck cranes are under threat, thanks to habitat loss from climate change and pollution. There are approximately 5,000 of them in the wild. 

The black-necked cranes are one of the 26 endangered birds of Bhutan.

Bhutan’s effort to protect the black-neck cranes

In 2015, the black-neck cranes arrived to the Phobjikha Valley late. Naturally, the Bhutanese were worried. 

Aware that the cranes are under threat, Bhutan is taking steps to protect them. The efforts are consistent with the country’s Gross National Happiness policy, where one of the 9 domains is ecological diversity and resilience. Furthermore, Bhutan is adamant about protecting its wildlife, as can be seen from the government policy that mandates 60% of the country’s land to be under pristine forest cover at all times.

But the effort to protect the black-necked cranes started way before 2015. In 2008, the government decided to erect power lines that could interfere with the crane’s flight path. The power lines were meant to bring electricity to the villages.

Concerned about the cranes, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), a non-profit organisation in Bhutan, spoke up. They volunteered to pay for solar lighting and persuaded the national energy corporation to invest in an underground power grid instead.

On top of that, they paired up with the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation (ICF) to expand wastelands and pay farmers so that they would opt against the expansion of croplands. They even constructed Bhutan’s first solid waste dump. All of this was to ensure that the black-necked cranes’ winter habitat was preserved.

The Black-necked Crane Festival

To create awareness on the importance of conserving the endangered black-necked cranes, the RSPN established the Black-necked Crane Festival in 1998. The black-necked crane festival is held on the 11th of November every year at Gangtey Gompa Courtyard in Phobjikha Valley with the help of the monks from the monastery.

The festival coincides with the birthday of the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

The event celebrates the arrival of black-necked cranes during the winter. During the festival, there are cham dances and folk songs, all of which have a black-necked crane theme. There are also crane dances. 

Last but not least, school children perform conservation-themed skits and songs.

Wanna see the black-neck cranes for yourself?

If you wish to witness the majesty of the black-neck cranes yourself, book your tour to Bhutan between October to February and request for your tour guide to take you to Phobjikha Valley. If you are lucky, you’ll get to watch the majestic cranes soar through the valley, or right above your head.

It’ll be worth it.

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