Protecting Lumbini’s rare cranes
The region around Lumbini is an important wildlife habitat, but is facing an imminent threat because of increases in industrial pollution, urbanisation and mechanised farming.
A World Heritage Site associated with Lord Buddha, Lumbini has a diversity of farm-dependent biodiversity and is designated as an important Bird Area by Bird Life International. The fields and river channels provide an important habitat for many species and serve as a corridor for animal movement.
The farms are studded with oxbow lakes formed by Tarai rivers such as Danob, Tinau, Kothi and Telar which overflow into floodplains during the monsoon, but are mostly dry rest of the year. These lakes are important wetland habitats for many species of birds, amphibians, turtles, snakes and mammals, such as the Blue Bull antelopes.
Sarus Cranes, known as monogamous birds, hold a unique place among all other species in Lumbini, owing to their legendary connection with Lord Buddha when he was Prince Siddhartha of the Kingdom of Kapilvastu.
Siddhartha Gautam is supposed to have rescued a wounded crane and saved it from his cousin Devdatta. Many historic images show the Buddha in the presence of the crane, and ornithologists believe this non-migratory species has been living in the Nepal Tarai for over two millennia. In a statement that becomes the aphorism for modern day conservation, King Suddodhan then declared that the bird belonged to the one who saved its life.
The Sarus Crane has become symbolic of an ancient culture that valued all forms of life and its deep connection to it. Also regarded as ‘Siwan ka Raja” meaning ‘Royals of the Wetlands’, the tallest of flying birds, Sarus Cranes hold a special relationship with the farmers of Lumbini as their presence in the paddy fields is believed to be indicative of healthy wetlands, a harbinger of good crops. The birds are protected by the community and have been named the mascot by the Lumbini Cultural Municipality.
Much like the Sarus Cranes, Kala Namak (black salt rice) holds unique allure for its association with Prince Siddhartha. Also known as ‘Buddha’s rice’, the crop holds a cultural significance to the people of Kapilvastu who consider it a holy gift. After his enlightenment, Buddha is said to have distributed black rice to his people as a gift and a mark of homage.
The fields where the black rice grows also serve as a foraging habitat for Sarus Cranes and their chicks in the post monsoon season. However, fast-growing hybrid rice varieties have almost completely replaced them in recent times, with only a few farmers continuing to grow the fabled paddy.
Driven by this spiritual link, Lumbini has taken strides in protecting critical species and their farm habitats. The Lumbini Crane Sanctuary was set up by International Crane Foundation in the early 90s, which doubles up as an outdoor nature education centre. The refuge was built to showcase model wetland habitats for nesting cranes.
In 2010, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal joined the conservation effort by partnering with Lumbini Development Trust. The collaboration began with an initial goal of planting one million trees under the Green Lumbini Initiative. Over the years, WWF Nepal has expanded its scope of work and partnerships to conserve and protect Sarus Cranes and their habitats.
The Lumbini Development Trust, International Crane Foundation, Lumbini Cultural Municipality and local youths are currently partners of the WWF in actively working to conserve Sarus Cranes and promote Kala Namak rice with tree planting, building levees to store rainwater and forming eco-clubs to generate awareness on crane conservation.
There is a sense of urgency to this work because Lumbini’s wetlands are increasingly threatened by pollutants, land encroachment, proliferation of industries, siltation, invasive vegetation and pesticide and fertiliser use.
Mechanical harvest of rice and wheat also deprive Sarus Cranes and other birds from their food source. New highways, transmission lines and mobile towers have also endanger the remaining Sarus Cranes and other large birds.
Urban expansion, unmanaged effluent, sewage and garbage are polluting water sources, and affecting biodiversity in the wetlands. Globally, freshwater biodiversity decline is happening at an alarming rate of 84% average since 1970.
However, there is still hope to reverse this loss, protect Lumbini’s wetlands and prevent the birds becoming extinct. The Nepal Government needs to make a stronger commitment to protect, restore and manage existing wetlands.
It would be crucial to promote stronger community stewardship towards conservation of wetlands and Sarus Cranes, alongside promoting organic farming, reducing use of harmful pesticides and mobilising youth in the conservation efforts.
As we embrace the theme of World Wetland Day 2021, we must pledge to protect and value water and wetlands. Sarus Cranes represent a lifetime of partnership, and these large, elegant, birds are our messengers for how we all need to work together to save them.