Saving Lumbini’s SarusSacred cranes decline as urbanisation destroys their habitat at the Buddha’s birthplace
Sarus cranes hold a unique place among all the other species of birds found in Nepal, owing to their legendary connection with Lord Buddha in his birthplace of Lumbini.
It is believed that Prince Siddhartha was strolling in the palace garden one day when he came across a wounded crane. As he was taking the arrow out, his cousin Devdatta, who had shot the bird, demanded the bird back. Unable to establish who the rightful owner was, the two went to King Suddhodhan who then declared that the bird belonged to the one who saved its life.
The bird mentioned in Buddhist scriptures is said to be the Sarus crane found in Lumbini and the wetlands of the Tarai plains of Nepal, and have possibly been living here for millennia.
The Sarus crane’s cultural importance has been recognised by the local municipality which regards the bird as its mascot. But rapid urban spread in this part of Nepal has resulted in the destruction of its habitat.
A study by Nepal Zoological Society and Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Biology funded by the International Crane Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund puts the population of these monogamous birds at only 690 in Nepal.
Lead researcher ornithologist Hem Katuwal warns that cranes and other bird species could disappear from the Nepal Tarai if conservation measures are not urgently undertaken.
Hari Sharma at the Central Department of Biology, however, is not so discouraged. He says, “The survey was conducted in the dry season, and even then we counted more cranes than expected. This number will definitely increase in the monsoon.”
The study looked at the population and status of cranes in the greater Lumbini area and other districts with 14 teams fanning out across 93 blocks with roosting sites, including ten in Lumbini, two in Kapilvastu, seven in Rupandehi, and one each in Jagdishpur Lake, Bajaha Lake, and Nawalparasi.
Among the 15 species of cranes found globally, Nepal is home to four, the Sarus (Antigone antigone), Karyangkurung (Demoiselle Crane), Laxman (Common Crane), and Kalikantha (Black-necked Crane).
The Demoiselle, Common Crane, and Black-necked Crane are migratory birds, flying down from the Tibetan Plateau across the Himalayan mountains to the plains of Nepal and India in winter. But the Sarus prefers to stay put, and the study focussed on this group.
Like other wildlife, the survival of the Sarus depends on the availability of water in rivers, lakes and wetlands. But water is drying up due to over-extraction, pollution, invasive species and weather extremes caused by the climate crisis.
“As the rivers shrink during summer, the birds migrate further to the south. Last winter, over 100 cranes were found in Bajaha Lake. This time the water had dried up, and only 27 were seen,” says Katuwal.
A dedicated Crane Conservation Area has been formed within the Lumbini enclave due to its sacred connection to the Buddha.
The study focused on the Lumbini area, which includes Kapilvastu, Rupandehi, and Parasi, and found out that although wetlands are important, cranes tended to breed in open fields and avoided forests. The region has now been declared an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.
Increasing construction activity, new cement factories in the Lumbini region worried researchers who felt it would lead to further habitat destruction and water scarcity.
Another threat to cranes and other birds is the changing agriculture practice of burning harvest residue which reduces the availability of insects which are already impacted by pesticide use. Electric transmission lines also pose a threat, and at least 42 cranes have been killed in the past 12 years after colliding with wires. Stray dogs and people stealing eggs also pose additional danger.
As the habitat of cranes spans the Nepal-India border, many cranes fly back and forth, which points to a need for a trans-boundary conservation campaign by tagging birds to track their movement.
The study also surveyed local perception of cranes, and found them to be largely positive with most residents regarding the presence of the birds in their fields as an auspicious sign. However, the Nepal Tarai is now home to more than half of Nepal’s population and there is increasing migration of people from the mountains who may not share the same veneration for cranes.
Cranes are the world’s tallest birds that can fly, and the Sarus stand 2m high and can be 3m wide when they spread their wings. They are light brown in colour and have red patches on the head and neck, with pink legs.
Cranes weigh from 6-12kgs and are omnivorous birds that feed on plants, grains, roots, insects, and worms. They breed in the monsoon season and build their nests near wetland areas and in fields with grass, roots, and stems of giant reeds.
Usually, they hatch one to two eggs in one nest. Both male and female cranes sit upon the eggs for 30 to 32 days and then hatch the eggs. they live in pairs for life, and have been known to have a lifespan of 40 years in captivity.
The arrival of cranes indicates rain, and rice planting time. They are regarded as symbols of love because of their conjugal habit.