Eye In The Sky – Tracking Black-necked Cranes And Bar-Headed Geese In The Trans-Himalaya
Tahir Shawl, Wildlife Warden, Jammu and Kashmir, teams up with wildlife biologists to satellite-tag the threatened Black-necked Cranes and Bar-headed Geese of the Indian trans-Himalaya. Tracking their migratory routes is crucial to conservation efforts on the ground.
Photo: Tahir Shawl.
On a chilly but bright morning in September 2013, the Air India flight gradually screeched to a halt on the runway at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh, a small high-altitude town in the Indian trans-Himalaya. The river Indus, meandering gently on its serpentine course, and shimmering with crystal clear, ice-cold water, flowed gently alongside the airport. Brown, barren peaks with the Spituk monastery atop a distant hill extended a warm welcome. Fluttering tarshoks (prayer flags), and the murmur of mantras and hymns from the nearby Gompa cast a spell over the moonscape. Memories of my two-year stint as Wildlife Warden in Leh came rushing back. I was happy to be back where I belonged.
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee.
SCIENCE IN ACTION
As the then Wildlife Warden Leh. I had mooted a proposal, in consultation with Dr. Ainul Hussain, scientist, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Jigmet Takpa, Regional Wildlife Warden, Ladakh, for the scientific management, protection and conservation of some of the landscape’s most threatened avian species – the Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis and Bar-headed Geese Anser indicus, both summer visitors to Ladakh where they breed. I wanted to study their migration patterns and habitat utilisation using advanced scientific tools such as satellite telemeters, neck collars and tarsus rings.
The first step was to obtain baseline information about their breeding grounds, migratory routes, stop-over sites, duration of stay at each site and the annual fluctuations in their number. The proposal was accepted and the J&K Department of Wildlife Protection launched the study in collaboration with the WII.
With other colleagues, I was one of the investigators in the study. Dr. Asad Rahmani from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai, and Dr. Bilal Habib from the WII, Dehradun, joined me in Leh while Dr. Ainul Hussain was unable to do so due to a last-minute official assignment. But Leh was not by far our final destination, just a layover to discuss plans, strategies and methodologies. We also had to plan how to deal with the harsh, high altitude and very remote wilderness of the Changthang area near the India-China border, in the western part of the Tibetan plateau in Ladakh.
THE BLACK-NECKED CRANE
Photo: Ji Qiu.
This is a large bird, with a long neck and legs. It belongs to the Order Gruiformes. There are 15 living species of cranes in four genera. Their distribution is worldwide except South America and Antarctica. The richest diversity of cranes is in Asia, where eight species are found. The Black-necked Crane Grus nigricollis, the only high altitude crane species, is listed as threatened and declining under IUCN classification. CITES places it in Appendix I. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as well as the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978, places this bird under Schedule I. Its total world population is estimated between 5,000 and 6,000. The bird is found in high altitude wetlands and marshes of the Tibetan plateau, Qinghai, Tibet and eastern Ladakh in India during the breeding season. During winter, it uses lower elevations of Tibet, Yunan, Guizho (China), Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan and some areas in Arunachal Pradesh in India. It was one of the last discovered species of cranes, only described in 1876.
A STATE FOR THE BIRDS
While Leh is the breeding home of Bar-headed Geese, the birds winter in a marshy land stretching along the India-Pakistan border, 40 km. from Jammu town. Much of this area is under paddy cultivation (known to produce one of the best qualities of Basmati rice), but a small part has legal status as the Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve. It was during a birding trip in 2004 when I, as the Wildlife Warden of Jammu, along with my colleague, Intisar Suhail, caught sight of a flock of Bar-headed Geese here. This was the first reported sighting of the species from Gharana. Since then, there have been reports of almost 4,000 to 5,000 Bar-headed Geese every winter, with anywhere between 15,000 to 20,000 waterfowl of several other species in the adjoining marsh lands.
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee.
I prepared a checklist of birds found in Gharana, and conducted avian flu surveillance and bird ringing exercises in 2006 and 2010 with help from the BNHS. In March 2013, we deployed satellite transmitters, in collaboration with the WII, on two Bar-headed Geese at Gharana to study their migration patterns and habitat utilisation. The study looked for links between the Ladakh and Gharana Bar-headed Geese populations. J&K is the only Indian state that has both wintering (in Jammu) and breeding (in Ladakh) populations of this remarkable bird.
The Black-necked Crane was first reported in 1919 from the Tso Kar area of Changthang in Ladakh by naturalist F. Ludlow, who recorded three of these striking birds. Later, in the 1920s, Osmaston and Meinertzhagen observed them in small numbers in the wetlands of eastern Ladakh. The detailed reports on breeding sites in eastern Ladakh came after Dr. Sálim Ali initiated short-term field studies in 1976 and after. During my field trips to Ladakh, I recorded the species more widely distributed at Puga, Tso Kar, Hanle, Lal parri, Chushul, Staklung, Parma near Tangtse and on the banks of the Indus near Neoma.
THE BASTION OF THE UNIQUE
Photo: Tahir Shawl.
The Indian trans-Himalayan region in Ladakh holds a distinct position as a bio-geographic zone that hosts unique wild species, many of them rare and endangered. About 33 species of mammals, 276 species of birds and more than 700 species of plants, predominantly herbs and shrubs, have been reported from this region. Apparently barren, this high altitude cold desert region in Jammu and Kashmir, experiences extreme low temperatures and rainfall leading to low environmental productivity. Nevertheless, this region is represented by eight species and sub-species of ungulates.
This is the only place within Indian limits where the Black-necked Crane and Bar-headed Geese visit and breed during summer. These bird species are considered as threatened. An estimated 80 Black-necked Cranes were present in Ladakh in 2009 whereas in 2013, the number was believed to be slightly higher at around 100.
DEPLOYING SATELLITE TRANSMITTERS
We chose to spend two days at Leh acclimatising, discussing methodologies and obtaining provisions for the field. Jigmet Takpa, the Chief Conservator of Forests and Regional Wildlife Warden, Ladakh, was a great help and Intesar Suhail, now Wildlife Warden, Leh, took care of the logistics.
We left Leh on September 15 and after a full day’s journey by road, reached Chushul, a sleepy hamlet situated at an elevation of 4,400 m., near the India-China border, in Changthang.
On our arrival, we drove immediately to Tso-Gul-Tso, a nearby marsh, where a pair of Black-necked Cranes had been reported. Along with Ali Hassan and his son Sikandar, trained bird trappers from Bihar, we conducted a recce, laid traps and hoped for success by late evening.
Photo: Tahir Shawl.
We had no luck the first day and returned to our rest house at Chushul. The next morning, we left at 4 a.m. and from a distance we saw a pair of cranes in the water. Ali Hassan laid leg nooses at strategic locations using experience and knowledge gained over almost 40 years in the field. One of the most skilled Indian bird trappers, he was associated with Dr. Sálim Ali and the BNHS and has greatly assisted scientists and researchers on such expeditions. He had, in fact, previously helped me capture Bar-headed Geese and other bird species at the Gharana wetland for avian flu surveillance, ringing and satellite telemetry. I should add that the duo is skilled in ethical trapping methods that bring no harm to the birds. Although there are different techniques and methods of capturing birds, we used noose traps in Ladakh as well as Gharana for both the species.
Patience, endurance and persistence are pre-requisites for any person who seeks to be a successful field biologist. It was almost mid-day when the cranes emerged from the water, but they did not step into our traps. Instead they continued walking and foraging in the vast marshland, away from our noose traps. Meanwhile, we chose to recce and look for other potential trap locations.
As we entered the adjoining valley, the first sight we were greeted by was of the spectacular vision of a large herd of Tibetan wild asses or kiangs. We also observed three pairs of Black-necked Cranes and several flocks of Bar-headed Geese and other waterbirds, plus some domestic yaks. All these creatures shared the huge marshy expanse that was coated with a white blanket of salt.
This valley comprises three localities – Sirding, Tingru and Rala, with no human population residing here during summer. Ironically, even as I watched, a small group of people arrived in a vehicle and headed straight for the marshland. Using ropes they began to make high-pitched sounds and I was compelled to go up to them to ask what they were up to. They responded that they were trying to protect the forage for their own livestock and had to push the wild asses out.
Clearly, even the most remote habitats desperately need protection and management, because such human-wildlife conflict could spin out of control and wildlife will be the primary loser.
Photo Courtesy: Tahir Shawl
Back at Tso-Gul-Tso, we watched as the cranes finally advanced toward the noose traps, as they foraged and waded through their marsh. Finally, a female Black-necked Crane was trapped at around 10.35 a.m. We quickly moved in, silent and cautious so as not to alarm the bird, and took the necessary biometric measurements. We attached two bands of two different colours on her left leg and attached a satellite transmitter. This done, the bird was immediately released and we watched with delight as she took a couple of small strides and nonchalantly joined her companion.
It was a momentous occasion. The first Black-necked Crane in India had been fitted with a satellite transmitter and was foraging peacefully. We checked the instruments and saw, to our relief, that the Argos satellite above us had begun sending signals on the location of our bird.
On the next day, September 17, we fixed satellite transmitters on two Bar-headed Geese at Rala and Tingru near Chushul. We also collared and ringed four Bar-headed Geese during our stay. A second Black-necked Crane was captured and radio-collared at Tibra (Rhongo) near Hanle on September 21, around 2.45 p.m.
Once activated, radio-collars enable researchers to track their subjects’ location and activities.
The transmitter stays on the bird until it drops off accidentally, or is removed by us. We are positive that our satellite studies will open up a new world to expand our understanding of the habits and movements of these birds. This, in turn, is possibly the best way to fine-tune conservation action on the ground to protect their habitat from grazing, farming and other forms of degradation. It is by gathering such data, painstakingly, that a better understanding of our planet will emerge, which is vital to our own survival in an era of climate change.
The author is a senior Wildlife Biologist with the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu and Kashmir Government. He is trained in Protected Area Management, Wetland Management, Wildlife Legislations & Crime Control, and Endangered Species Management. He pursues writing and photography in his free time. Presently he is posted as Wildlife Warden HQr, J & K in the Wildlife Protection Department, J & K government.
IMPORTANT BIRD AREAS
1. Chushul marshes
2. Hanle Plains (Hanle River marshes)
3. Pangong Tso
4. Tso Kar Basin
5. Tso Moriri Lake and adjacent marshes
6. Pong Dam Lake Wildlife Sanctuary,
7. Gharana Wetland Reserve
8. Harike Lake Bird Sanctuary
SUMMARY OF THE PARTIAL FINDINGS OF THE TELEMETRY PROJECT
1. In Phase 1 of this research project, carried out by the Wildlife Protection Department, J&K Government, in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India, two Bar-headed Geese were fitted with satellite transmitters in the Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve, near Jammu.
2. Phase 2 was carried out in the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Ladakh and four Bar-headed Geese were captured at Chushul using noose traps, two of them fitted with Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTT) and with conventional neck bands and rings. Two other Bar-headed Geese were collared with only conventional neck bands and tagged with tarsus rings. We also fitted two Black-necked Cranes with PTTs and tarsus bands, first at Tso-Gul-Tso, Chushul and second at Rhongo.
3. This study was able to track the migration of Bar-headed Geese from Ladakh to Jammu via Himachal Pradesh (probably Pong Dam).
4. As per the data received through ARGOS by the WII until December 2013, the maximum length of movement covered by the Black-necked Crane was 329 km. while the Bar-headed Geese traversed a maximum of 945 km. The movement of the first Black-necked Crane was mainly between Tso-Gul-Tso to Pangong Tso to Tso Nyak marshes and Tibetan Autonomous region, while the movement of the second crane was around Rhongo, Hanle, Indus marshes, Tibra and up to the Line of Control. One Bar-headed Goose travelled up to the Himachal border. Two others were later sighted and reported from Gharana near Jammu by me in December 2013. They, most likely, travelled from Ladakh via Pong in Himachal Pradesh to Jammu.
5. The movement of Bar-headed Geese deployed with PTTs at Gharana in March 2012 showed an interesting pattern. Contrary to the conventional belief that they migrate to Tibet and the highlands of central Asia in summer, as revealed by some other studies, they utilised, as their main habitat, the stretch of flood plains of the Tawi river between Jammu district in India and Sialkot district in Pakistan. However, further studies are required to ascertain whether some population of Bar-headed Geese breeds elsewhere within this stretch. Efforts are underway to carry out a waterbird census and further deploy PTTs and bands on Black-necked Cranes in the Changthang Sanctuary.
Author: Tahir Shawl
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 5, October 2014.