A song for the wetlands – Protecting Black-necked cranes in Ladakh, India

February 5, 2023

"It is a delight to watch these birds. Their song and dance routine reminds me of actors dancing in films," says 24-year-old Palzes Angmo from Ladakh's Mudh village as she talks about the mating ritual of black-necked cranes.

Found across high-altitude areas of India, China and Bhutan, they are the only alpine crane species living and breeding exclusively in these areas. Local communities revere these birds - for Palzes and her community, they are a harbinger of good luck.

"You'll find cranes in our folklore and art, such as the thangka paintings in monasteries. One of Ladakh's most popular folk dances, the chartses, is based on its mating dance. These birds are a part of our culture and live and protect us," says Palzes.

Living and breeding exclusively in and around high-altitude wetlands, the black-necked cranes play an important role in preserving these fragile ecosystems. Feeding on plants and small insects as a part of their diet, black-necked cranes help prevent eutrophication, a process where the overgrowth of plants can decrease oxygen levels in the water and lead to a decline in water quality.

The wetlands -in turn - provide a home for the cranes, especially during the breeding season - safe nesting sites and ample food for their young ones.

For centuries, local communities have understood and protected this delicate balance by celebrating the birds in their traditions and creating social taboos against harming them.

Yet these cranes face multiple threats today. In the Changthang region, an increase in the population of dogs means huge risks for the chicks in the nesting sites. Additionally, Ladakh's wetlands are under tremendous pressure from unsustainable tourism, climate change and increased grazing from livestock herds.

Due to these threats, black-necked cranes are classified as 'Vulnerable' in the IUCN red list.

The SECURE Himalaya initiative by the Global Environment Facility, Government of India and UNDP is working with the Union Territory Administration of Ladakh to protect these species and their wetland habitat.

Working closely with committed community members like Palzes, UNDP trains volunteers to monitor and guard the black-necked crane nests and chicks, especially from the threat of dogs.

Inspired by the actions of these volunteers, community members from neighbouring villages came together and formed the Cha Srungskyob Tsogspa, Birds Conservation Committee.

The committee members take turns to guard these waterbirds and ensure their safe passage from the rockfaces of Mudh village where they lay eggs, down to the marshes along the banks of Indus River where the chicks finally mature into adults.

The committee's efforts were recently recognised and shortlisted for the India Biodiversity Awards 2023, conferred by the National Biodiversity Authority of India.

The initiative is exploring ways to ensure that volunteers get paid for their time and effort. Living in high-altitude Ladakh is not easy - with most jobs limited to tourist season. UNDP is designing a nest adoption programme to raise financial resources through crowdfunding and pay the volunteers for their time and effort. This will help make this model sustainable.

The project aims to designate critical nesting areas as Biodiversity Heritage Sites under India's Biological Diversity Act. By doing this, we can provide legal protection to important wetland ecosystems without restricting the sustainable traditional practices of the local communities and their usage of these ecosystems.

"Look, there's a pair with a chick. See how they guard it so carefully. I just hope they keep coming every year," Palzes points out to the far end of the wetland.

For communities in this remote trans-Himalayan region, conserving nature is more than just volunteerism or charity; it is an integral part of their cultural identity.

It is also a way of life we must protect – for people, for planet.