Black Necked Crane Festival

The Jigme Dorji National Park adjoining Phobjikha Valley across the Black Mountains has within its precincts the crane wintering area at Bumdeling, which also has been declared a protected area. The black-necked or Tibetan crane is categorized as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Black-necked cranes, the last to be found among the 16 known species of cranes, were first identified by Nikolay Przhevalsky of the Imperial Russian Army in 1876 in the Tibetan Plateau.

Apart from China and India, Bhutan has taken special care to protect this species and has established the Phobjikha Conservation Area covering 163 square kilometres (63 sq mi) of the valley under the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) and for the purpose of conservation management. The conservation area was established by Bhutan in the Phobjikha Valley in 2003, and RSPN has the mandate to protect not only the black-necked cranes but also 13 other vulnerable species. The cranes, which were hunted in Bhutan until 1980, are now totally protected, with the government enacting a law under which any person killing a crane would invite a long jail sentence.

In Bhutan, black-necked cranes have a celebrity status as witnessed by the Crane Festival held every year on 12 November soon after their arrival from the Tibetan Plateau in the courtyards of Gangten Monastery. Many tourists visit the valley to witness this festival.

The conservation area or habitat in the Phobhjikha Valley, established in 2003 has, not only the black-necked cranes, but also 13 other vulnerable species such as rufous-necked hornbill Aceros nipalensischestnut-breasted partridge Arborophila mandelliiPallas's fish eagleHaliaeetus leucoryphusnuthatch Sitta Formosawood snipe Gallinago nemoricolaBlyth's tragopan Tragopan blythiigreater spotted eagleClanga clangaimperial eagle Aquila heliacaBaer's pochard Aythya baeriHodgson's bushchat Saxicola insignisdark-rumped swift Apus acuticauda, and grey-crowned prinia Prinia cinereocapilla.The black-necked cranes arrive in this valley in late October and depart in mid February.They feed on the particular type of dwarf bamboos that grow in the wetlands of the valley. The thick grasslands of wetlands are also grazing grounds for a large number of cattle and horses during the summer months that helps the growth of the tender bamboo shoots on which the cranes feed later during the winter season. There were suggestions that the wetlands be drained and used to grow cash crops such as potatoes, which is also the main crop of the valley. Such an action would have deprived the cranes of their main feeding centres. However, Palje "Benjie" Dorji, former Chief Justice of Bhutan, former Minister for Environment and uncle of the present King of Bhutan, as the Chairman of the Royal Bhutan Society and as founder of the Black-necked Conservation Programme prevailed on the Government of Bhutan to drop the proposal to drain the wetlands of the Phobjika Valley to create farms to grow cash rich seed potatoes.

This crane species is legally protected in Bhutan and its hunting is prohibited. The religious culture of the Buddhists has attracted the cranes closer to the religious communities of Lamas, particularly in the Phobjikha and Khotokha valleys. Another reason for this is that when the large number of cranes visit these valleys, which are snow bound, the village community, including the Buddhist Lamas migrate to warmer regions to Wangdue Phodrong, thus avoiding a human conflict with the cranes' habitat, which forage in the valleys in marshy lands that are ploughed before winter and that provide insects and plant material and seeds. In these habitats, it is inferred, that livestock also helps by grazing on grass which in turn helps in bamboo regeneration on which the cranes feed.

Another feature noted in Bhutan is the belief among the common people that they are blessed when cranes circle around their valleys. A particular practice observed is that they plant the winter wheat only after the cranes arrive in their valleys to roost. Bhutanese people sing folk songs as the cranes arrive in Bhutan and also dance in the autumn. They call it as thrung thrung karmo. The religious significance of these cranes is further accentuated in Bhutan by the report that "they mate for life and for 30 or 40 years".

A black-necked crane festival is held every year in the premises of the Gangteng Monastery on 11 November to welcome the cranes, which start arriving in late October. The festival is attended by a large number of local people. On this occasion, children wearing crane costumes perform choreographed crane dances. During this period, cranes are seen flying at high altitudes over the mountains.