Basic knowledge about the importance and activities of Black-necked crane among people in the cold desert of Ladakh is so widespread that Chartses, local name for mating dance of this long-legged bird, is an important feature of every cultural programme or local festival. Ladakhis, particularly those living in Changthang region, consider black-necked crane not only culturally important, but a spiritual creature as well.
They believe that sighting the giant bird is a sign of good luck. Many monasteries in Ladakh have even paintings of black-necked crane along with other spiritual paintings.
Black-necked crane is highly revered by the people of Ladakh. It is embedded in our culture and its dance (Chartses) is performed by Ladakhis in every cultural event and festival, said Jigmat Takpa, former forest conservator of Ladakh.
Its drawings are found in our monasteries as the bird is considered very auspicious and the symbol of Ladakhs unique ecology. Ladakhis feel proud about the fact that its only breeding ground in India, is in Ladakh, Takpa added.
Black-necked crane lives on high altitudes in Tibetan plateau, India and Bhutan, the only species of the crane family choosing such habitats. These birds build their nests in open environments which makes them vulnerable to predators. Both male and female are almost of similar size though the male is slightly bigger than the female. They have whitish bodies, long slender black legs and long black necks with a red crown adorning their heads.
According to IUCN, black-necked crane is classified as Vulnerable because it has a single small population that is in decline owing to the loss and degradation of wetlands, and changing agricultural practices in both its breeding and wintering grounds.
In Ladakh Himalayas, says WWF-India, the major threat to the successful breeding of black-necked crane is the damage caused to the eggs and chicks of the bird by feral dogs. According to WWF-India, these dogs are owned both by armed forces as well as by the local nomads. Another threat to the bird is the loss of habitat.
The canine hazard
The beautiful creature, also the state bird of mountainous state of Jammu & Kashmir, is under severe threat from human-kinds trusted friends dogs. If there is any single biggest threat to the survival of black-necked crane these days, it is from the feral dogs, said Takpa. The dogs are even attacking the humans. How can these poor creatures escape from their wrath?
At his office in Leh, the regional wildlife warden of Ladakh, Sajid Sultan, showed me photos taken by some people in Changthang. In the photos, feral dogs are seen attacking wild animals including Black-necked crane and Snow Leopard.
Street dogs pose a huge threat to the wildlife in Ladakh. They are creating a lot of problems for the Black-necked cranes as they eat their eggs and disturb them by running after them, Sultan said.
When asked about the measures being taken by his department for avoiding dog-attacks on wildlife, he said: Sterilization is going on for controlling the dog population, but there is no impact so far. We need to do something different about this problem on the basis of scientific research.
Sultan said that his department, in collaboration with Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, Wildlife Conservation and Bird Club of Ladakh, and the Nature Conservation Foundation carried out a survey recently which estimated that the population of dogs in Changthang is 3,500 approximately. Out of these, the survey says, a total of 1200 dogs were estimated within the buffer of 10 km radius of 13 black-necked crane breeding sites.
Feral dog population in Ladakh is sharply increasing and is becoming a major threat to humans as well as wildlife. There have been few incidences where humans have been mauled and devoured by these dogs, and predation on wild herbivores is widely reported, said Narinder Patil, a wildlife researcher who was part of the survey.
During our interviews in 40 villages of Changthang region, we noted that dogs are very unambiguously perceived as a threat to people, livestock and wildlife in Changthang, he said.
Quoting from the survey-report, Patil further said: Almost all the people interviewed were of the opinion that population of free-ranging dogs has to be controlled, and their understanding is that dogs thrive on the food-waste generated at tourist camps and military camps.
Thriving of dogs in wildlife habitats in Ladakh, Patil said, is posing a serious challenge to the survival of wildlife species. Referring to the breeding success records collected for their study, Patil said that the breeding success rate of Black-necked crane has sharply declined from 60 percent in 1995 to a dismal 29 percent in 2016. During our survey, we found out that dogs are almost entirely responsible for this as they eat their eggs, he said.
According to a research paper, the total population as per the 2014 survey for Ladakh is 112 which includes 17 breeding pairs.
Noting that in China many areas having Black-necked Cranes have been declared as nature reserves, researchers have suggested that efforts should be made to involve all the key stakeholders to protect these birds in the entire currently known distribution range of the species in India in order to secure a bright future for the breeding and the wintering population of the Black-necked Crane in the country. Wintering population in India is seen in small numbers in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh while the breeding of Black-necked cranes takes place only in Ladakh (J&K).
In Changthang in Ladakh all the tourism and development activities should be properly regulated especially at the nesting and feeding sites of the cranes, researchers have suggested.
Indias wildlife and canine conundrum
As per a study published in Animal Conservation late last year, dogs in India reportedly attacked 80 species carrying out 460 attacks between September 2014 and June 2016. As many as 31 of the species attacked were IUCN Red list threatened species, including four Critically Endangered species.
Approximately 68% of the attacks, the study says, were carried out by dogs unaccompanied by humans. Most of the attacks were carried out by packs of dogs with 45% of these attacks leading to the death of the prey. Nearly 48% of the incidents were reported in and around wildlife protected areas, suggesting that dogs are an important large-scale edge effect around protected areas in India.
We emphasize that responsible dog ownership that focuses on population control, vaccination, adequate feeding and control of free-ranging behaviour can reduce interactions with wildlife. However, in areas of conservation concern, control methods should also include active removal of un-owned and feral dogs, the study suggested.