Every year, small flocks of black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) descend from their breeding grounds on the Tibetan plateau into the warmer valleys of Ladakh, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. Here, they feed on grubs and left-over grains until the weather warms up again, and they fly back across the high Himalayan regions to breed. It is simply amazing that these birds manage to fly such distances and cross such high mountains. In Arunachal, they used to be found in Ziro, in the Pangchen valley (Zemithang) in Tawang, and in Chug and Sangthi valleys in Dirang, West Kameng.
The ‘thrungthrung’, as the cranes are called in the Monpa languages, a name mimicking their characteristic sound, have a special significance for the Monpa people. They are linked to the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatsho, who was born in Tawang and to whom the following poem is attributed:
White crane, lovely bird,
Lend me your wings!
I’m not going far and away,
I’ll return through the land of Litang.
Peacocks from the east of India,
Parrots from the lower Kongpo area!
Though (their) birthplaces are different,
(Their) meeting-place is Lhasa, the land of Dharma wheels.
The willow lost its heart to the bird,
The bird lost its heart to the willow!
If affection concords in harmony,
The hawk cannot overpower (them).
The cranes bond for life, and a crane couple will remain together till death causes them to part. They strengthen their bonds in graceful dances, and fly rounds over the valleys as if blessing the places and the people. In Chug and Sangthi valleys, it is believed they are one of the ‘norbu’, jewels, of the local deities. The paddy fields that they visit and on which they tread are believed to be secured of a good harvest that year. In short, they are an iconic species with a special place in the people’s hearts and minds.
But the cranes have been facing a lot of difficulty in recent years. Disturbance associated with rapid development has already caused their disappearance from Ziro. Everywhere else, sand and boulder collection and construction activities are disturbing their habitat. In Sangthi valley, paddy fields have been kept uncultivated due to cheap cooperative rice and lack of labour, and it’s become harder for the cranes to find their food. Dogs and people disturb the sensitive birds, especially around New Year and ‘losar’, when, unlike past practice, people have picked up the habit of lighting firecrackers. Cranes get entangled in electricity lines, and not so long ago, one crane has even been killed on purpose and eaten.
Every year, crane numbers returning to Arunachal have seen an overall decrease. And then this year, the winter of 2017-2018, may well be the first year in history that not a single crane has descended on Arunachali soil. Till date, neither Zemithang, Chug nor Sangthi valley has reported any arrival. And they should have been here by this time. In neighbouring Bhutan, till now 475 birds have arrived, down from 555 last year and 609 in the year before that. Maybe, they are just late, but if they haven’t arrived by now, chances are there, they may not arrive at all.
Why the cranes haven’t come is anyone’s guess. For the people of the region, it is not considered a good omen. They miss the birds, and worry what will happen.