JAN 2020  
Biodiversity: Phobjikha (The Paradise of Black-Necked Cranes)

Bhutan, a landlocked country in the Himalayas, is gifted with splendid natural beauty. In February 2018, I happened to climb Phobjikha, one of the beautiful dales in central Bhutan. The suffix ‘kha’ stands for dale in Dzongka, the Bhutanese language. Phobjikha is a wide valley situated 2900 m above mean sea level. It is endowed with extensive marshlands and harbours unique biodiversity. The black-necked crane is one such rare species which roosts here during winter.

Phobjikha is a lot more than just a dale. To the Bhutanese, it is a sacred landscape where the beautiful Gangteng Monastery spreads sermons and the philosophy of Lord Buddha, which helps in the conservation of biodiversity, including the black-necked crane. Because of this monastery, Phobjikha is also known as Gangteng valley and is dotted with clusters of human settlements which are carved in the style of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Over the years, the residents of Phobjikha have developed a high passion to the black-necked crane, which has become a part and parcel of their culture.

People here believe that when the black-necked cranes arrive in Phobjikha for winter, they fly over the Gangteng monastery three times-and they perform the ritual again while leaving the valley just before summer. The residents believe that they are blessed when the cranes fly over their valley in circles; and that the cranes flying above their farmlands forecasts a good cropping season. Black-necked cranes are considered a sacred bird species and are symbols of peace, prosperity, and fortune. The bird has a special place in local paintings, dances, stories, and folklores of Bhutan and is considered a good omen. The high-pitched calls of the cranes are a source of happiness for the residents of Phobjikha, who refer to it as a heavenly bird.

The black-necked crane is so ingrained in the local culture that every year in November the crane festival is celebrated as soon as the cranes arrive in the valley for winter. People dance wearing masks, install exhibitions and perform short plays on the cranes, their behaviour and environment. Children also enjoy this festival, wear crane costumes and perform crane dances. While wandering in Phobjikha, I happened to meet a 10-year-old school boy in the early morning hours. He was walking alone so I asked him, ‘Where are your friends?’ He raised his finger towards a flock of black-necked cranes moving in long-legged slow motion on a farmland and said, ‘They are right here’. He moved on imitating crane’s call. The black-necked crane, whose scientific name is Grus nigricollis, is affectionately called ‘Thrung Thrung Karmo’ in Bhutan.

Despite the association of black-necked cranes with spirituality, they are not unharmed by anthropogenic activities such as changing agricultural practices, livestock grazing, unreasonable plantations, improper drainage systems, water pollution, and the conversion of grasslands into agricultural lands. Since the cranes stay away from Phobjikha during summer, they are vulnerable to the changes that take place in their summer habitats where they breed. Intensive livestock grazing, use of pesticides, shrinkage of wetlands and marshes, increased fish farming, construction of roads, buildings and dams, unregulated tourism, and collection of eggs are the major threats to the survival of cranes in their summer habitats. They do have some natural predators, such as leopards, foxes, and cats in the valley. Stray dogs are also a threat to the cranes in Phobjikha.

Realizing the religious, cultural, social, and ecological significance of the black-necked cranes, the Royal Government of Bhutan declared 163 sq. km of the Phobjikha valley as a protected area. In 2016, a total 974.65 hectares of the Gangtey-Phobji wetland was enlisted as a RAMSAR site, and included in the list of Wetlands of International Importance, as conceived by the Ramsar Convention adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in February 1971. ‘The continuous efforts of the Department of Forests and Park Services, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests in saving wetlands and aquatic biodiversity, including the holy black-necked crane, have helped to enlist Phobjikha in the Ramsar site,’ informed Kinley Toeb, a forest officer at Thimphu. The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) has been taking care of black-necked cranes in Phobjikha through awareness campaigns, ecotourism, and research. I got to know at RSPN that the number of cranes at Phobjikha has been increasing and, at present, it harbours 504 black-necked cranes, of which 449 are adults and 55 are juveniles. Though cranes do roost in other parts of Bhutan, including Bumdeling (n=85), Bumthang (n=6), Khotkha (n=7), and Ihuantse (n=2), none of them is close to Phobjikha in terms of number. The IUCN estimates the population of black-necked cranes to be around 10,000 to 10,200 across the globe; hence Phobjikha contributes 5 per cent
of the global population. 

The high number of cranes makes Phobjikha a prominent destination for tourists, however, it has innumerable other things to offer. Apart from marshy grasslands, Phobjikha is endowed with clusters of groves composed of conifers (such as blue pine), broadleaf species (such as maple and birch), and a number of rhododendron species. The groves and grasslands of Phobjikha provide shelter to many precious wildlife species, including the barking deer, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan serow, wild boar, sambar, common leopard, and fox. Phobjikha is also a heaven for hikers. There are a number of farmhouses where accommodation is available on the concept of homestays, which is also a great  way for one to get the flavour of Bhutan’s culture, delicacies, and hospitalities while watching cranes in the home gardens and nearby farmlands. The residents here grow potato and wheat and since they don’t have any conflicts, the cranes walk freely in their farmlands and home premises. The Royal Government of Bhutan does not allow overhead power lines in the valley and supplies electricity through underground electrical cable systems, so that the cranes may continue to fly freely in the valley. While walking on the marshy grasslands and farmlands, the cranes feed on roots, tubers, grains, insects, snails, frogs, fish, and lizards. 

Because of the number of anthropogenic pressures in the past, and in order to conserve this important bird species, the IUCN has placed the black-necked crane under the ‘vulnerable’ category. By being listed in CITES, the international trade of this species is being checked. The Royal Government of Bhutan’s attempt to check the impacts of tourism on the forests and environment is exemplary, which requires that a foreign tourist has to pay $US 200 per day during off season and $US 250 per day during high season. This strategy helps regulate the number of tourists to Bhutan. At local level, the RSPN and Phobjikha Area Development Committee (a local community organization) look after the cranes. There are 17 community forest management committees in Phobjikha, which take care of forests and biodiversity. However, since the black-necked crane is a migratory bird which crosses the territories of different nations, there is a need for proactive work and joint efforts by nations for the conservation of this important species. Otherwise in the days to come it may become extinct as it did in Vietnam, where the black-necked crane is recorded as being extinct.

Dr Chandra Prakash Kala is a faculty member in the Ecosystem and Environment Management Division of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal.

© TERI 2020

Nominations open for CSP Today India awards 2013

The inaugural CSP Today India awards ceremony takes place on March 12, and CSP developers, EPCs, suppliers and technology providers can now be nominated.

CSP has made tremendous progress since the announcement of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in 2010. With Phase I projects now drawing closer to completion, the first milestone in India’s CSP learning curve is drawing closer. CSP Today has chosen the next CSP Today India conference (12-13 March, New Delhi) as the time for the industry to reflect upon its progress and celebrate its first achievements.

At the awards ceremony, industry leaders will be recognized for their achievements in one of 4 categories: CSP India Developer Award, CSP India Engineering Performance Award, CSP India Technology and Supplier Award, and the prestigious CSP India Personality of the Year.

Matt Carr, Global Events Director at CSP Today, said at the opening of nominations that “CSP Today are excited to launch these esteemed awards, which will enhance the reputation of their recipients. I am particularly excited to launch the CSP India Personality of the Year award, a distinguished honor for the industry figure deemed worthy by their peers.”

All eyes will be on the CSP Today India 2013 Awards when nomination entry closes on February 4 and the finalists are announced on February 11. The awards are open to all industry stakeholders to nominate until February 4 at or by e-mail to [email protected]

Matt Carr
+44 (0) 20 7375 7248
[email protected]