Blacked-necked cranes; when ‘science’ takes the prerogative over indigenous knowledge

Dear Editor,
This is in response to the article “Blacked-necked cranes arrive in Tawang!” in the Arunachal Times of December 4th 2018.
Having been a visitor to the Chug valley for the past six years, and having had the opportunity to talk to the inhabitants of this valley in depth, it is rather saddening to read that ‘science’ apparently takes the prerogative over local indigenous knowledge once again.
I am referring to the statements such as “Although the birds were seen in the Chug valley in 2016, it is yet to be confirmed as a regular wintering site over a longer period of time”.
The Chug valley has been a wintering ground for the black necked crane for as long as the people remember it. In fact, a local belief has developed that any paddy field on which the black necked crane steps is assured of a bountiful harvest that autumn.
The wintering population of cranes in the valley appears never to have been particularly high, between five and ten individuals, but moreover it has been rapidly declining to the extent that in the winter of 2017-2018 no cranes visited.
Despite its proximity to the Bhalukpong – Tawang highway, the Chug valley was a secluded place for long compared to the other villages of the district. Developments largely passed by the valley until the second decade of the new millennium, when electricity, road and other facilities reached for the first time. Hence, it is not surprising that the presence of black necked cranes, or for that matter any of the endangered wildlife, was unknown to science. No one ever bothered to visit and explore. This, however, does not mean that the crane wasn’t there. I am surprised that the knowledge of the local people seems to be completely ignored in this respect. It seems as if the only ‘proof’ that counts is that of outside biologists who see and photograph the birds.
Because the Chug valley was ignored for so long, it was also been neglected in terms of environmental protection and socio-economic development. Unfortunately, now that the valley has been ‘opened’, rapid socio-economic development takes place at the very expense of the natural environment. This is a worrying conclusion, and a worrying time. Boulder and sand extraction, diversion of the course of the river, unabated felling of valuable timber species and fire wood for sale, hunting and fishing, army training and increased used of pesticides and increased construction activities all negatively impact the environment of the valley. It is this disturbance that may well have led to the fact that the cranes did not return last year.
It is a bit of a vicious cycle. Because ‘science’ did not report the presence of the black necked crane in the Chug valley, unlike Sangthi or Jemithang, Chug valley and its environment was not accorded any protected status. As a result, unplanned and un-managed developments are taking place, resulting in the disturbance that has chased away the cranes. And now, the lack of ‘proof’ of a continued presence of the cranes is somehow an impediment to further action to protect the roosting grounds.
In fact, in addition to the information provided by the local residents, I personally saw the cranes between the winters of 2012-2013 (with photographic evidence) and 2016-2017 (with photographic evidence). It is the belief of the inhabitants of the Chug valley, that, with proper management, the cranes would return again this year, or some other year in future. Hopefully, new, upcoming interventions that seek to balance environmental protection with socio-economic development, providing equal opportunities to all households in the valley and focusing on the inherent strengths of the valley in terms of its environment, agricultural and tourism potential and resources, will create the background inviting the cranes to return.
Thank you,
Tim Bodt, London, UK.