Buddah birds: Protecting the black-necked cranes of Shangri-la

Posted on 24 August 2006  | 

By Alex Marston*

A symbol of peace, black-necked cranes have been revered by Tibetan Buddhists for centuries. Legend has it that previous incarnations of the Dalai Lama were carried from monastery to monastery on the backs of these holy birds.

A rare species endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, the cranes have also achieved something of an iconic status in the tiny village of Hamagu, on the edge of the Napahai wetland in Shangri-la County in China’s northwest Yunnan Province. Here, villagers are tying their fortunes to the cranes’ popularity as they are becoming more and more of a tourist attraction. But those small fortunes will depend on how well the bird’s habitat is protected.

The Napahai wetlands, where black-necked cranes feed and breed, are under tremendous pressure as their fragile wetland habitat is facing increasing pollution, shrinking freshwater sources, over-grazing by local livestock that destroys vegetation, and questionable zoning policies in the area, which can lead to unsustainable development and further habitat destruction.

“If the habitat is destroyed, the birds may stop coming,” said Liu Yunhua, Director of WWF China’s Education Programme. “This would no doubt be a loss, not just for nature but for the local communities who live nearby.”

Once abundant in parts of China, Bhutan and India, black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) numbers have dwindled in recent decades, and, as a result, have been listed on the IUCN red list of endangered species. It is estimated that there are only 5,000–6,000 cranes left in the wild. The wetlands of Bhutan and southern Tibet are the wintering sites of these birds, while northern Yunnan and the eastern part of Ladakh in India serve as their breeding grounds.

‘When I was young, I remember fields full of cranes as far as the eye could see,” said Luosang Tsichum, an 82-year-old resident from the Yunnan village of Hamagu.

“Now there are far fewer, but they still play an important role in our village because they help us regulate the farming season. The cranes use Napahai as a winter feeding ground, arriving just after the harvest. Then they leave in the early spring, which helps us mark the beginning of the planting season.”

However, not everyone has held the crane with the same reverence. Another long-term Hamagu resident, Zhishimila, paints a different picture.

“As a child, we knew the birds were valuable, which is why some of my friends would catch them to be sold in the local markets. They brought us a lot of money.”

Uncontrollable poaching certainly did not help the crane’s survival rate, but Zhishimila quickly points out that such practices died out many years ago, largely because of a greater understanding and respect for the birds.

Part of this understanding has been brought about through work supported by WWF, which has helped local communities to not only appreciate the cranes, but also to realize how the birds can support the village in building more sustainable livelihoods.

The cranes, as it turns out, can help the community beyond indicating the planting season. The draw of the black-necked crane, especially for both local and foreign ornithologists and bird enthusiasts, has become a huge potential source of alternative income for people like Zhishmila. As more people flock to the area, a service industry will be required to meet visitors’ needs.

Hamagu is one of the first villages in the region to embark on a WWF-sponsored eco-tourism programme, with birdwatching ranking as one of the highest must-do activities on the agenda.

Bounded by Sichuan Province to the north and Tibet to the west, the Shangri-la region is rich in biodiversity. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, alpine meadows and montane forests, the area is also home to endangered species such as the snub-nosed monkey and snow leopard. With elevations between 1500 and 5400m, the region is characterized by deep valleys and tall mountains, which have created extremely diverse climate, soil, and vegetation patterns, and unique and fragile ecosystems, such as high-altitude marshes, lakes and wetlands where the cranes like to congregate.

Taking advantage of the natural beauty, local villagers in Shangri-la are working with WWF to develop community-led ecotourism projects that will help conserve the habitat of the black-necked crane, while at the same time provide direct financial benefits for the local economy. The entire community is involved, providing travelers with homestays that include meals cooked by local families. Dance evenings are also being organized, where villagers show off the intricacies of their fancy footwork. Parties are often strung out until the small hours.

“It’s amazing to see so many people attracted by the cranes,” said Luosang. “We are learning the value of the birds, not just for ourselves but also for the outside world.”

But the cranes’ new-found status in the tourist industry could also be its undoing. Both Zhishimila and Luosang acknowledge that the biggest threat to the birds’ existence isn’t poaching, but a loss of natural habitat.

Over the last several decades, China’s rapidly growing economy and population have been the root causes of wetland and vegetation degradation throughout the country. Planned hydropower stations, dams, roads, bridges and tourism infrastructure, such as hotels, are also potential threats to the fragile ecosystem.

In Hamagu, locals fear that the cranes will start to disappear again because of this rapid urban and tourism development.

The area is certainly being transformed into a desirable tourist destination, helped in great measure by the opening of the airport at Zhongdian in 1998. Tourist figures for the area have increased from 40,000 in 1995 to just under two million by 2004. Ironically, the reason most people come to Zhongdian (or Shangri-La as it officially now known) is to experience natural peace and tranquility.

This irony isn’t lost on the residents from the surrounding villages. The 17 villages surrounding Napahai have come together to form the Napahai Wetland Association, a forum to discuss how best to protect the natural surroundings, upon which the crane’s existence depends.

“This association is an important part of empowerment process for villages like Hamagu,” explained WWF’s Liu Yunhua. “It allows them to make decisions on the future of their own environment and to make an active difference in conservation efforts, instead of simply taking it all in from the sidelines. The black-necked cranes are helping provide the association with a focus, almost like a symbol from which inspiration can be drawn.”

The association has already begun to make inroads into the some of their planned activities. Having identified pollution as a serious problem that threatens the habitat of the black-necked cranes, the villages are embarking on a series of activities to address this problem. These include a solid waste treatment initiative, organic farming and outreach work with the residents of Zhongdian. Such activities might not halt the unrelenting development of the city, but raising the awareness of people who live around the wetland will already be a significant step forward.

“Here in Hamagu we’ve learned to live in harmony with the cranes,” says Luosang.

“Our hope now is that our experience can benefit others who like us, live in areas vital to the survival of this species. We must conserve their habitat so that future generations can see these magnificent birds.”

* Alex Marston is a former Communications Coordinator with WWF’s China Programme.


• Results of a 2005–2006 black-necked cranes survey wintering in the Napahai Wetland Reserve — undertaken by WWF China's Conservation Small Grants Fund project — counted 219 birds, compared with 229 in 2004, 244 in 2003, and 292 in 2002.

• WWF China’s Education Programme has been supporting community-initiated activities in the Shangri-La region since 1996, building trust with partners including village communities, nature reserves, monasteries, a local NGO and local authorities. In particular, the WWF China Shangri-La Initiative is using education as a means to empower local communities, such as in Hamagu village, to manage their resources in a sustainable manner. This goal is being achieved by facilitating a learning process through community action research projects to foster knowledge, skills and attitudes of communities to sustainably manage their local natural resources, traditional culture and social infrastructure. The initiative is also increasing the capacity and potential of people and communities in the Shangri-La region through the establishment of the Shangri-La Institute for Sustainable Development, an institute that is working to shape and initiate change towards a sustainable future by connecting local actors to tertiary and vocational education programmes.

• The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands — signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar, Iran — is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are currently 152 Contracting Parties to the Convention, with 1,611 wetland sites, totaling 145.2 million hectares, designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.

• China presently has 30 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance, with a surface area of close to three million hectares. The Napahai wetland was listed as a Ramsar site in the beginning of 2005.
Endangered black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) grazing in one of the new wetland sites. The crane is considered a 'holy bird' in many local communities.
© WWF-China / NI Xiao Zhong Enlarge
China presently has 30 sites designated as Wetlands of International Importance, with a surface area of close to 3 million hectares. The Napahai wetland was listed as a Ramsar site in the beginning of 2005.
© WWF-Canon / Ramy Inocencio Enlarge
Local children birdwatching at the Napahai wetland.
© Tashi Gymtso Enlarge
The wetlands of Bhutan and southern Tibet are the wintering sites of black-necked cranes, while northern Yunnan and the eastern part of Ladakh in India serve as their breeding grounds.
© Lloyd Raleigh Enlarge

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