Home Magazines Conservation Will The Black-necked Crane Go The Way Of The Siberian Crane?

Will The Black-necked Crane Go The Way Of The Siberian Crane?

Will The Black-necked Crane Go The Way Of The Siberian Crane?

The story of the Black-necked Crane has contrasts that are telling—and tragic. Neha Sinha explains why the Nyamjang Chhu dam must be challenged for the sake of this vulnerable species.

Photo: Dibyendu Ash/Wikimedia Commons.

The statuesque Black-necked Crane is gorgeous by all standards. If you haven’t seen it, that’s because this towering bird, with a scarlet crown, an arching ebony neck, and a snowy body tapering into black prefers cold, high-altitude places. Like the virginal areas of the Tibetan plateau, including Ladakh, where it breeds. Before winter when the snow turns water to rock, the Black-necked Crane extends its wings to remote wintering sites. These sites are in just three countries: India, China and Bhutan.

In India, the Black-necked Crane has only two wintering sites: Sangti and Zemithang in Arunachal Pradesh. Zemithang valley is under threat today, from a dam which will submerge and perennially alter this area. The Cranes chose a small portion of Zemithang as their wintering site, bypassing other areas in the state, for reasons best known to the birds themselves. But this site has also been chosen by planners to construct a 780 Megawatt dam. Environmental clearance has now been granted for the Nyamjang Chhu dam, whose barrage will coincide directly with the Crane’s wintering area.

Zemithang has been selected as an Important Bird Area by the Bombay Natural History Society precisely because of the visits by this threatened Crane species. Within the Zemithang valley, the wintering stretch is relatively tiny: only about 3 kilometres. It is precisely these three kilometres, between Brokenthang and Zemithang, which will be inundated by the dam.

Remote areas are often preferred by magnificently wild creatures. Remote areas are also traded off by authorities, because they escape scrutiny, imagination and attention. The Black-necked Crane, however, is awaited each year by Buddhists who consider the bird sacred. The Monpa Buddhists of Tawang were the first to state that they revere the Black-necked Crane and do not want to lose this site to a dam. They believe the Black-necked Crane is linked to the Dalai Llama; some say the Crane is an embodiment of the Llama, with the bird finding mention in Monpa poetry.

Spirituality and a Court case

But can belief move mountains—and in this case, a dam?

The peaceful monks of Tawang are now monks on a mission. They have organised themselves into the ‘Save Mon Region Federation’. Perhaps because their protests, which lasted several years, did not change damming plans, they have now approached the National Green Tribunal opposing the environmental clearance granted to the project. The case is currently ongoing in New Delhi.

The environment clearance is ridden with problems and stinks of fraud. Analysis of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reveals that the it has not even mentioned Black-necked Cranes in Zemithang. The EIA also seriously underscores the ecological impacts the dam will have. See Nature Conservation Foundation’s critique of the EIA here.

The dam will entail the digging of a tunnel, which will create about nine lakh truckloads of debris. For this main tunnel, nine other small tunnels will also be dug. The dam’s barrage will submerge the areas around the river, and the tunnel itself will impact the ecological flow and perhaps also have seismological impacts in a quake-prone area.

Apart from the missing Black-necked Crane in the EIA, a river basin study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change points out that the Arunachal Pradesh government is not forthcoming on the presence of the Cranes in the state. The Power department of Arunachal Pradesh “expressed reservations” on the presence of the Black-necked Crane, as per the Tawang River Basin study. It appears that the project has been planned (rigorously pushed forward) and developers want to erase the existence of Black-necked Cranes from memory.

But collective memory is hard to erase. The local Buddhist community in the area has joined hands with WWF-India to create a Community Conservation Reserve, just for the Black-necked Cranes. Other than the Cranes, which form an important component of the opposition to the Nyamjang Chhu dam, the local communities living in the area also feel the quality of their life will change with the network of dams being planned in the area. A few hundred metres from Nyamjang Chhu dam, the Tawang dam is also planned. The dams have been conceptualised apparently to benefit local people, but these people have expressed that this has been done without their side of the story being heard.

“Tawang is shaken by the State Government of Arunachal Pradesh opening the flood gates of hydropower projects, threatening people, their culture and environment,” the Save Tawang and Monpa groups have said in a public statement. With the impending loss of biodiversity there will be a serious loss of cultural diversity as well.

In the late 1980’s, a tiny group of Siberian Cranes still visited India—in a small dot of a sanctuary—Keoladeo in Rajashan, which spreads over a modest 29 sq. km. Amongst very many other wetland habitats India had to offer, the Siberian Cranes chose Keoladeo to repeatedly winter in each year. For India, the Siberian Cranes were both a tourist attraction, as well as an enigma. In the early 2000’s, the Siberian Cranes stopped coming, and have not returned since. The memories of the birds, and the hope that they will return, have however not abated.

Will the Black-necked Cranes be the next Siberian Cranes? It is not too late to help them, and with public support, we can secure the Crane’s habitat. We need to say no to fraud Environment Impact Assessments and to compromises on our country’s wildlife. Raise your voice, and help save nature, and the traditions that bind us to nature. The numbers of Black-necked Cranes in India are in any case very small; the amount of space they ask for, pitifully little. Are we too miserly to even grant them this tiny space?

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Reach her on her Twitter handle: @nehaa_sinha

A case is ongoing in the National Green Tribunal against the environmental clearance granted for the 780 Megawatt Nyamjang Chhu dam, which will inundate Black-necked Crane habitat. The petitioners include Buddhist monks who revere the Crane and value the Zemithang area’s pure natural beauty. They have formed the ‘Save Mon Region Federation’.The Black-necked Crane only winters in two areas in India: Zemithang and Sangti in Arunachal Pradesh. The bird  is only found in Asia and nearly all its wintering habitats are under threat.The next hearing of the case is on September 1, 2015 in the National Green Tribunal, New Delhi.The Bombay Natural History Society has asked that environmental clearance for the project be suspended; it has also asked for a study to consider the needs of the Black-necked Crane, this should also be done during the Crane’s wintering season.

Author: Neha Sinha.


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August 31, 2015, 06:24 PM
 We have worked too hard. .. too long to allow unimaginable active people vandalise this heritage in a geography where glacial melt makes dam builders' plans amount to little more than pipe dreams anyway.
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