I have to admit that, when I first saw on my Bhutan itinerary that we were going to drive five to six hours through high-elevation passes from Thimphu to Phobjikha to go see some birds, I was not impressed. However, as we drove through magnificent mountain landscapes on tight, twisty roads, our seasoned guide, Jam Yang, shared with us why these birds are so special to the Bhutanese people.
Every year the black-necked cranes (known simply as ‘thrung thrungs’ in Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan) travel all the way from the Himalayan mountaintops of Tibet to their own monastery in the Phobjikha Valley, Gangtey Gompa. The monastery sits above their marshland destination in the Black Mountains of central Bhutan, a sub−range of the Himalayas.
According to legend, when the cranes arrive, they circle the Gangtey Monastery three times in a clockwise direction before finally landing in the center of the marsh. This is very similar to the Buddhist meditative ritual of circling around a sacred site (or doing a ‘kora’), a mark of devotion. Inside the monastery, local monks dedicate prayers for the safe return of the birds they revere as bodhisattvas — beings that have achieved their own enlightenment.
These enlightened beings are seen as symbols of peace and longevity, and the Bhutanese consider them sacred.
Black-necked (or Tibetan) Cranes, the last discovered of only 15 species of crane in the world, live in the Tibetan Plateau and migrate each winter to the lower altitudes of Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley (which is at an elevation of around 3,000 meters). They were first identified by Nikolay Przhevalsky of the Imperial Russian Army in 1876, on the Tibetan Plateau. The cranes, classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are tall, sleek birds with a wingspan of up to two metres (seven feet).
Carved out of glaciers, the valley of Phobjikha is a vast marshland that makes for prime nesting grounds for the cranes. From November through May, the cranes flock to this particular valley because of its excellent roosting capacity, and because it is somewhat protected from predators. Local efforts have been made to keep local dogs away from the birds, as they are one of their prime predators.
Some of the local farmers even till their own land to make it as hospitable as possible for the cranes, as it is considered highly fortuitous if they choose to inhabit or circle above one’s land. The cranes are said to bring tidings of a fruitful harvest if seen flying above one’s fields.
Each November the inhabitants of the Phobjikha Valley welcome their feathered friends with the Black-necked Crane Festival. It’s a mark of respect, and intended to advocate the conservation of this vulnerable species. The inhabitants of the valley have even appointed human caretakers to see to their wellbeing, and to kill a crane in Bhutan carries a sentence of life imprisonment.
These special cranes are venerated throughout Bhutanese folklore, and music and dance pieces have been created specifically to honor the crane during this festival, which has been happening since 1998 and takes place in the courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery.
You can watch the monks perform their masked dances and see children dressed in black and white crane costumes perform the famous “Dance of the Cranes.” On an especially fortuitous day, an actual black-necked crane might fly overhead. The festival takes place every year on November 11 (the date is fixed, unlike most Bhutanese festivals).
Bhutan’s Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) has been carrying out numerous activities in the valley to preserve both foraging and roosting habitats for the cranes. A big part of their effort has been getting the local communities involved in the conservation of the cranes. RSPN’s Crane Conservation Project works with the local community to protect the habitat without undermining the community’s livelihoods, which is mostly farming and depends on the wetland.
As a part of their efforts to conserve the habitat of black-necked cranes, the RSPN has initiated environmentally friendly alternative energy sources in the valley, such as solar lights for homes. In a remarkable decision by the Bhutanese government, the electricity cable lines that were meant to be built on poles in the region were instead buried underground in an effort to not interfere with the cranes’ roosting ground, showing just how important the cranes are to the Bhutanese.
The RSPN has also initiated eco-tourism for the benefit of the community. It aims to create a model of community-based sustainable tourism that contributes to the conservation of the natural environment as well as protect the cranes’ habitat. The RSPN, in conjunction with the local population, maintains and restores the cranes’ roosting area every year around mid-September, just before the birds’ arrival in the valley.
Travelers can visit the Black-necked Crane Information Center run by the RSPN, where you can learn all about these majestic birds and their influence on the culture of Bhutan. It’s located on the edge of the forest and wetland along the main road of the Phobjikha Valley. Then, if you are there at the right time, you can see the cranes with your own eyes, or even the festival, and the stories and legends will come alive.
Even though spending an arduous 5-6 hour drive from Thimphu to Phobjikha to visit cranes was not originally high on my list, it turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Bhutan. And, just like the cranes, I hope to keep coming back.
Article by Kristen Gill
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