Saving Nepal’s flyway for migrating cranes

Demoiselle Cranes flying south in autumn along the Kali Gandaki at Kagbeni with Mt Dhaulagiri looming in the background. Photos: RAJENDRA SUWAL

It was in Kagbeni in 1980. High above in the deep blue Himalayan sky was a flock of graceful Demoiselle Cranes, flying north riding up-valley winds on their annual migration across the Himalaya. It was my lucky day.

The Kali Gandaki at this point is the deepest gorge in the world, located between two eight thousander peaks, Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I. It provides a passage for migratory birds from the Tibetan Plateau and Siberia to the Subcontinent and back.

Kagbeni is a vantage point to spot migratory birds, and I had visited it multiple times to provide expertise for filming by NHK and BBC. Till then, I had never seen the cranes, only watched them on Planet Earth Mountains on Discovery Channel.

Demoiselle Cranes are the third most common crane species after the Sandhill Crane in North America and Eurasian Crane in Europe and Asia. They number over 200,000, and demonstrate spectacular migratory flights.

They breed in the vast expanses of the steppe grasslands of Mongolia and Russia, and fly south across the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya to winter in western India.

Unlike other cranes that dwell on wetlands, these cranes prefer relatively dry habitats for survival. Their nests can be found on dry ground around 500m apart from each other.

Prior to migration, the birds flock with their fledglings. Birds from Mongolia and Russia overflying Nepal and Pakistan covering nearly 3,000km one way, and finally converge in western India, where they live in large flocks in their wintering grounds.

They can fly over extreme habitats of the world including the scorching Gobi Desert, the high and dry Tibetan Plateau, the Himalaya with its jet stream, the lush Gangetic Plains and the farms of Western India.

Satellite telemetry studies have recorded a cyclic migration pattern of Demoiselle Cranes, flying over Nepal during autumn and returning via Mongolia in spring. During their autumn migration, birders can see magnificent flocks of Demoiselle over Nepal’s high mountain passes, gorges and along the Tarai. Farmers in Nepal often witness flocks flying in V formation like a swaying garland pattern in the sky, and call it ‘karyang kurung’ for the sound the make.

In 1972, a flock of Demoiselle even alighted on Tundikhel at the centre of Kathmandu. More recently, I have observed them flying over my office in Baluwatar in 2015, and from my house in Chetrapati in 2016.

But for these migrating cranes, Kagbeni remains the flight path of choice since the Kali Gandaki serves as a funnel that cuts through the Himalaya. My highest count of the Demoiselle has ranged from 50,000 in 2004 to only 5,000 in 2009.

Another flock of Demoiselle Cranes flying north in spring, riding the up-valley thermals of the Kali Gandaki to lift them over the mountains to the Tibetan Plateau.

Variance in counting can be tied to weather, wind and visibility. When the wind in the Himalaya picks up, the flocks descend to lower altitudes. When they have the jet stream on their tails, they ride it over the mountains.

For these expert fliers, the flight path is determined by head or tail winds, thermals, katabatic winds, and other weather phenomena. Thermals in the wind shadow of the mountains helps them gain altitude.

In Nepal, the southerly daily thermals of the Kali Gandaki valley helps the birds soar up and over the mountains, whereas, riverbanks, wetlands and farms along the flight path are convenient night stops.

These wetlands connect the dots along the birds’ migration routes, and Nepal lies in the Central Asian Flyway. During bad weather events, the birds use the windswept flood plains of the Kali Gandaki river in Kagbeni and Larjung of Annapurna Conservation Area as a safe stopover, while the buckwheat terraces provide food for their long journeys.

While large in number, these birds still need protection from threats along their migratory routes and stopovers. These include poisoning from pesticide laden seeds, and from epidemics of water borne or airborne diseases.

In Mongolia, the application of the rodenticide Bromadiolone is known to have killed hundreds of Demoiselle Cranes, Steppe Eagles, Saker Falcons and other species. In November last year, 37 Demoiselle were found dead in Jodhpur in India, probably after eating poisoned seeds.

In North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, crane hunters are the biggest threat during migration. Metal weights tied to strings are hurled to lasso the cranes as they fly low to clear mountain passes. Traditional hunters in Pakistan often use live cranes as decoys to attract other birds, and keep them as pets.

Ensuring safe and protected wetlands and farms along their migratory routes from Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Pakistan, Nepal to India along the Central Asian Flyway is crucial to ensure the long term survival of these birds.

Legend has it that Lord Buddha’s cousin killed a crane, and he was very moved when its mate mourned its death. The scene changed his life by inspiring him to seek a path of non-violence and compassion.

One of the approaches undertaken by WWF, known as the Asian Flyway Initiative, aims to provide safe passage between the breeding and wintering sites of cranes. Similarly, creating awareness about safe farming practices and promoting bird watching tourism are some of the viable options to help protect Demoiselle Cranes.

The designation of 10 Ramsar Sites, identification of wetlands of international importance for biodiversity in Nepal provides stopover sites for many ducks geese and waders during migration.

Demoiselle Cranes, however, require wide riverbeds and farmlands as stopover sites and wintering habitats. World Migratory Bird Day on 10 October aims to generate awareness and seek support for the conservation of these legendary migratory species so that they survive into the future.

Rajendra N. Suwal is the Head of Partnerships Development at WWF Nepal.

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