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Saving the majestic birds of heaven

RSPN and DoFPS charts out the Black-necked Crane Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan 2021-2025

By Tandin Wangchuk

The Department of Forests and Park Services, MoAF in collaboration with Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) has come up with the Black-necked Crane Conservation Action Plan 2021-2025.

In Bhutan, BNCs face increasing threats from infrastructure development, changing land use patterns and agricultural practices, predation by stray dogs, loss of wetlands and climate change.

However, stakeholders say the conservation of BNC is challenged with limited research and resources, poor coordination amongst stakeholders, poor awareness and participation by the communities.

The Black-necked Crane Conservation Action Plan for Bhutan will be implemented from the year 2021 to 2025 for a period of five years with an estimated cost of Nu 67.67 million.

Bhutan has over 600 Black-necked Cranes which migrate to several valleys of Bumthang, Lhuntse, Trashi Yangtse and Wangduephodrang every winter between October and March. The conservation of BNC in Bhutan started as early as 1986 and provided highest protection under Schedule I of the Forest and Nature Conservation Act, 1995.

The report states that there are three main wintering habitats of the species in Bhutan: Phobjikha in the west, Bumthang in the central, and Bumdeling in the east. Among these three, Phobjikha receives the highest number of wintering cranes (437 individuals out of the total 555 national count of 2018-2019 winter) followed by Bumdeling valley in Trashiyangtse district with 119 individuals in the same winter months.

Historical reports from elders suggest that large numbers of BNC once wintered in Paro, Bajo in Wangduephodrang, and Chokhor valley in Bumthang.

โ€œUndoubtedly, the declining number of cranes visiting these areas can be partially attributed to human disturbance and development that altered suitable wintering habitats,โ€ the action plan report states.

As an umbrella species, its protection plays a major role in ensuring the conservation of biodiversity in the related habitats as well. The Black-necked Crane is also a key species in the sub-alpine wetland ecosystems.

โ€œNot only have these perceptions and experiences translated into a community-held reverence for the species, but it also seems to have resulted in ad-hoc habitat protection, as well as a documented minimization of humancaused disturbances across their wintering habitat range,โ€ RSPN states.

Timely Intervention

Under the species-based conservation program of RSPN, the conservation of two flagship species in the country, White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) and BNC, are prioritized. S

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was also signed between RSPN and the DoFPS to enhance knowledge, and identify and implement appropriate conservation measures of the two species and their habitats.

The MoU further stated to promote biodiversity and ecosystem conservation through collaboration in the field of species and habitat, water resource management and research between participants.

โ€œSome of its programs include community-based sustainable tourism, community-based solid waste management, environment and health, alternative energy, capacity development, women and energy, water and energy and community forest development,โ€ the plan states.

Further, in collaboration with the local farmers of Bumdeling, RSPN, International Crane Foundation (ICF) and BWS have also embarked on habitat restoration in Bumdeling.

Flood affected paddy fields are being reclaimed and restored, by removing flood debris from the fields and by proper terracing. An agreement was also signed with the land owners not to abandon and to cultivate paddy while leaving fallow in the winter to allow cranes to freely forage for dropped grains.

RSPN said a total of 10 acres have been restored so far as a pilot project, with plans to initiate more in the future, if the project is successful. Similarly, currently used paddy fields with no proper fencing were installed with electric fencing as an incentive to the farmers to continue farming. The initiative has covered more than 110 acres of farmland, benefitting about 113 households.

In addition, since stray dogs in all the habitats were rated to be an emerging issue and a potential threat to the cranes, dog sterilizations are being carried out in collaboration with DoFPS and the Department of Livestock.

โ€œTo minimize threats from the wild predators, annual roost maintenance is being carried out in the three major habitats (Phobjikha, Chumey and Bumdeling). The maintenance work involves removal of vegetation and creating shallow ponds of areas ranging from 20 X 20 meters to 50 X 50 meters,โ€ it stated.

As further preventive measures, electric cables were laid underground in Phobjikha to avoid collision, which also ensured minimal degradation to the aesthetic values of the valleyโ€™s environment. However, RSPM reported that in other habitats, there are still overhead cables which are considered to be a significant threat to the BNC.

Objectives of the BNC Action Plan

RSPN states the first objective provides focus to actions that explore the capacity for improved documentation and regulatory mechanisms in BNC winter population management.

โ€œIn addition to more dedicated mapping efforts and habitat assessments, the objective recognizes that conservation will require a synergy between protected area and development management schemes, while paying special attention to emergent threats such as stray dog mismanagement,โ€ RSPN states.

The second objective, according to the plan report, recognizes that community engagement and efforts to support sustainable livelihood opportunities are crucial to ensuring the longevity of BNC conservation in the country.

In addition to on-going education and awareness campaigns, it focuses on concrete actions that actively involve community partnersโ€™ decision-making processes through collaborative knowledge sharing workshops and conservation activities.

In order to achieve the target objectives, the broader community must consider local development goals that prioritize livelihood generating activities that either do-no-harm or directly benefit wintering crane populations.

โ€œThese actions may include, but are not limited to, support for organic agriculture, promoting community-based ecotourism and support payment for ecosystem services that enhances wetland and watershed vitality,โ€ it states.

The third objective is to provide focus to the importance of research in a futureoriented conservation strategy for the species. This will require more in-depth and interdisciplinary studies that explore the socio-cultural context of conservation in the region that influence a diversity of enabling factors for the successful implementation of conservation action.

Strategic actions will take the form of promoting institutional research collaborations, data management, and information dissemination in the form of reports and peer-reviewed publications. The success of these actions will be measured not only by the quantity of multi-disciplinary research efforts, but the quality of scientific studies and networks created.

The fourth objective recognizes that conservation of the species cannot be done in isolation, and must depend on a diverse and empowered network of stakeholders fostered on stronger communication channels, diligent peer-topeer and institutional networking, and support for capacity building endeavors.

In addition to stronger stakeholder coordination within the country, it recognizes the need for trans-boundary cooperation between scientists, conservationists, donors, and educators.

โ€œWhile select targets are detailed here to provide an idea of possible avenues for improving coordination, we should acknowledge that as situations and circumstances change, so too do we as partners across borders need to adapt to more effectively support conservation for the species, in every capacity,โ€ it states.

The total estimated cost required to implement this action plan for the duration of five years is Nu. 67.67 million (2021-2025). The financing and implementation of this action plan will be a collaborative effort of DoFPS and RSPN.

The DoFPS will meet the funding requirements mostly from the Bhutan for Life project for conservation works inside the Protected Areas and RAMSAR sites and source additional funding from donor agencies such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Bhutan, Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) among others for conservation areas outside the protected areas.

Meanwhile, RSPN will secure additional funding from various international partners to secure consistent and sustainable financing for conservation of BNC in the long run.

The bird is described as being native to China, India, and Bhutan and the current global population is estimated at 10,000-10,200 individuals in total or roughly equivalent to 6,600-6,800 mature individuals.

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