Conserving Our Endangered Avian Species And Wetlands by Tahir Shawl

Cause progress

Satellite Telemeters were deployed to study the threatened avian species like Black-necked cranes and Bar-headed geese.The Jammu and Kashmir state has the distinction of being the only state in India where migratory Black-necked crane, the endangered bird species and our state bird; and Bar-headed geese, the highest flying bird ever recorded flying over Mount Everest, breed during summer. They along with some other migratory avian species breed in Ladakh region of the state. This again is the only Indian state which hosts wintering as well as breeding population of Bar-headed geese. During winter large flock of Bar-headed geese throng plains of Jammu particularly Gharana, Kukrian and Pargwal wetlands along India-Pakistan border.
Saving Endangered Black-necked Crane

The cranes are large birds, with long necks and legs, belonging to Order Gruiformes. Some of the crane species are the largest flying birds. There are fifteen cranes in four genera. Their distribution is worldwide except North America and Antarctica. The richest diversity of cranes is found in continent Asia where eight species are found. Almost all the crane species are threatened.

The Black-necked crane, Grus nigricollis, the only high altitude crane species, is listed as ‘threatened’ and ‘declining’ under IUCN classification. The CITES has placed it in Appendix I. The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, and the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978, have placed BNC in Schedule I. The world population of BNC is estimated between 5000-6000. It is found in high altitude wetlands and marshes of Tibetan plateau, Qinghai, Tibet and Eastern Ladakh in India during breeding season. During winters it uses lower elevations of Tibet, Yunan, Guizho (China), Myanmar (Burma), Bhutan and some in Arunachal Pradesh in India. It was one of the last discovered species of cranes described in 1876.

Ladakh – the Only Breeding Ground of Black-necked Crane and Bar-headed geese in India

Ladakh is the only place within Indian limits where Black-necked crane (BNC) and Bar-headed geese (BHG) visit and breed during summer. These bird species are considered as threatened and their global population shows declining trend. The estimated number of BNC in Ladakh was around 80 in 2009 (Shawl,T.(2009), Daily Excelsior,) where as the 2013 estimate is around 100.The global population of Black-necked crane is estimated less than 6000.

The Black-necked crane was first reported in 1919 in Tso-kar area of Changthang in Eastern ladakh. Naturalist F. Ludlow recorded three Black-necked cranes in Tso-Kar. Later in 1920s Osmaston and Meinertzhagen observed these birds, however, in small numbers, in wetlands of Eastern Ladakh. The detailed reports on breeding sites in Eastern Ladakh came after Dr Salim Ali initiated short term field studies during and after 1976.

During my field trips in Ladakh I recorded BNC at Puga, Tsokar, Hanley, Lal paddi, Chushul, and Staklung, etc in Changthang region.

Gharana – Home to Wintering Bar-headed Geese Population in Jammu and Kashmir

Hardly at a distance of 40 kilometers from Jammu town, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, a marsh land area is located that stretches along India-Pakistan border. Most part of this area is under paddy cultivation and produces one of the best qualities of Basmati rice. A small part of the marsh, in village Gharana, has legal status as Wetland Conservation Reserve. It was during 2004 when I first, on a birding trip to Gharana, caught sight of a flock of Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus). This was the first sighting report of Bar-headed geese from Gharana wetland. Gharana and adjoining marsh lands like Kukrian, and Pargwal host about 4000 to 5000 Bar-headed geese every winter Gharana besides 15000 and 20000 birds of other different species.

Not only the birds the Wetland Reserve itself may disappear in near future if steps, on war footing, are not taken to save this crucially important and almost the only wintering ground of Bar-headed geese and many other migratory species in Jammu and Kashmir. (Shawl, T. (2013) Saving Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve, (Kashmir Scan, 2013: 46‐48) and Saving Gharana, (Daily Excelsior, Jan 20, 2013).

With the support of Wildlife Department, I proposed and got Gharana Wetland declared as an IBA (Important Bird Area) along with some other protected areas of Jammu region, so that it could invite the attention of our Government and policy makers for more concerted conservation measures. To keep this important avian hot spot of our state in focus, we later conducted bird flu surveillance and bird ringing exercises in 2006 and 2010 with technical assistance from BNHS.

Conservation Planning By Modern Scientific Interventions

For devising management planning for conservation of threatened migratory birds and their habitat, it is very essential to obtain baseline information about their breeding grounds, migratory routes, stop-ove, duration of stay at each site and annual fluctuations in their numbers at a place.

Subsequently in 2009, as the then Wildlife Warden Leh, I mooted a proposal to the Wildlife Protection Department of the state to devise and develop scientific management planning for the protection and conservation of some of our most threatened avian species, especially Black-necked crane and the Bar-headed geese. The project encompassed studying their migration pattern and habitat utilization using modern and advanced scientific tools like satellite telemeters, neck collars and leg rings so that our Government could adopt necessary measures and launch management interventions to safeguards threatened species and their habitats.

The proposal was approved by the Government and the Department of Wildlife Protection embarked on a prestigious research project in technical collaboration with Wildlife Institute of India and Bombay Natural History Society.

Deploying Satellite Transmitters – Towards Saving Endangered Natural Heritage

We first initiated deploying satellite telemeters on Bar-headed geese at Gharana wetland near India- Pakistan border in Jammu region of the state in March 2012. The results have been discussed in a report ‘Tracking Movement Pattern of Bar-headed Goose in Jammu and Kashmir’ brought out by Wildlife Institute of India in April 2013.

It was for the first time during March 2012 that we deployed satellite transmitters, in collaboration with WII, on two bar-headed geese at Gharana wetland, to study their migration pattern and habitat utilization. The study further aimed at exploring whether their existed any link between Ladakh and Gharana populations of Bar-headed geese.

In September 2013 we extended it to Ladakh for Black-necked cranes, the state bird of Jammu and Kashmir and a threatened avian species, and also Bar-headed geese.

Targeting Them In Breeding Grounds

I arrived in Leh on a chilly and bright sunny morning of September 2013. My other colleagues from Mumbai and Dehradun associated with this research exercise also arrived. I along with Dr Asad Rehmani, Director Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai and Dr Bilal Habib from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, spent two days at Leh acclimatizing, preparing and discussing our methodology. We left, along with Intisar Suhail, present Wildlife Warden Leh, on 15 September for Chushul. After a day long journey by road we reached Chushul. It is a small hamlet situated at an elevation of 4400 meters near India-China border in Changthang region of Ladakh. On our arrival at Chushu, around dusk, we straightway moved to Tso-Gul-Tso, a marsh nearby, where a pair of black-necked crane was foraging.

We along with Ali Hassan and his son Sikander, the trained bird trappers from Bihar, conducted recci of the area, laid traps and waited for the Black–necked cranes to get trapped till late evening. We were not able to get any bird in hand and decided to return to our Rest House in the evening at Chushul.

Next morning we were up and ready by 4’Oclock. There was chill in the air. We proceeded to the targeted site we had visited last evening and waited, sitting in our vehicle, till dawn. The pair Black-necked of cranes was still roosting in water. Ali Hassan laid leg nooses at strategic locations using his experience and skills, gained by him for almost over forty years of experience as one of the most skilled Indian bird trappers, as we continued waiting for the birds to come out of water and get trapped.

Patience, endurance and persistence are pre-requisites for any person to be a good and successful field wildlifer. We saw the cranes coming out of water and assumed they would be trapped soon. Contrary to our assumption, they continued walking and foraging in the vast marshland in a direction away from noose traps. We moved to new nearby location to recci and identify other potential sites for trapping Bar-headed geese and Black-necked cranes.

In the adjoining valley across the hill, very close to India-China border, I was spell bound to experience spectacularly awesome sight of a large number of Tibetan Wild Ass (Kiang), three pairs of Black-necked cranes and flocks of Bar-headed geese along with other bird species and some domestic yaks sharing huge expense of marsh land covered with white blanket of salt. This valley comprised of three localities viz; Sirding, Tingru and Rala with no human population residing here during summer. However, I watched some persons next morning arriving here in a vehicle and rushing towards the marsh land with ropes in their hands rushing to flush away the kiang. I intercepted some of them and learned that they were defending the area from the Wild Ass to save the forage for their livestock for winter.

Back at our previous location at Tsu-Gul-Tso the cranes were advancing towards the noose traps while foraging and wading through the marsh. Soon it was a joyous moment for all of us when we saw a female Black-necked crane getting trapped at around 10.35 AM. Without losing much time we silently and cautiously took some biometric measurements, put two colour leg bands on left leg and deployed a satellite telemeter on it. The crane was quickly released very safely. We watched the bird delightfully while it joined her companion after taking a couple of small strides and flights.

I watched keenly the first black-necked crane in India with a satellite transmitter deployed on it foraging again peacefully with her companion at the Tsu-gul-Tso marsh land in Chushul, while a satellite above in the sky had started sending signals about its location.

Next day, on September 17, we deployed satellite telemeters on two Bar-headed geese at Rala and Tingru near Chushul. In total we collared and ringed four bar-headed geese. The neck collars and bands, each bearing a specific number, were also put on four Bar-headed geese. The second Black-necked crane was captured near Hanley on September 21, around 2.45 P.M and a satellite transmitter was deployed successfully on it along with colour leg bands.

Very interesting and new results, not known hitherto, have started coming in which may be used by the concerned for acting promptly towards protecting Nation’s precariously threatened Natural Heritage.

(The author, a Post Graduate in Wildlife Science, is trained in Endengered Species Managment from Durrell Conservation Trust, Jersey (UK), and Wetland Management from Wageningen University, Netherlands. He is presently posted as District Soil Conservation Officer (Forest) Jammu. Feedback at )