For the residents of Ladakh, the cold desert region in India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, the black-necked crane is held in high regard. Its mating dance is an important part of every cultural program and festival, and many monasteries feature paintings of the crane alongside other spiritual art.
Ladakhis also believe that a sighting of the giant bird portends good luck.
But the black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis), which is also the state bird of mountainous Jammu and Kashmir, is under severe threat from man’s best friend: dogs.
The main threat to the successful breeding of the species in Ladakh is the damage that feral dogs cause to the eggs and chicks of the bird, according to WWF-India. It says the dogs are owned by members of the armed forces and by local nomadic groups
Another threat to the bird is the loss of its habitat. The black-necked crane is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because it has a single small population that is declining as a result of the loss and degradation of wetlands and changing agricultural practices in both its breeding and wintering grounds.
The black-necked crane lives at high altitudes in the Tibetan plateau, India and Bhutan, the only species of the crane family to occur in such habitats. These birds build their nests in open environments, leaving them vulnerable to predators. The male of the species is slightly larger than the female, and both have whitish bodies, long, slender legs, and long black necks with a red crown adorning their heads.
“Black-necked crane is highly revered by the people of Ladakh,” said Jigmat Takpa, the former forest conservator for Ladakh. “It is embedded in our culture, and its dance” — the Chartses — “is performed by Ladakhis in every cultural event and festival.
“Its drawings are found in our monasteries as the bird is considered very auspicious and the symbol of Ladakh’s unique ecology. Ladakhis feel proud about the fact that its only breeding ground in India is in Ladakh,” Takpa added.
‘Single biggest threat’
“If there is any single biggest threat to the survival of black-necked crane these days, it is from the feral dogs,” Takpa said. “The dogs are even attacking the humans. How can these poor creatures escape from their wrath?”
At his office in the ancient town of Leh, the biggest in Ladakh, regional wildlife warden Sajid Sultan shows photos taken by people in the Changthang area of Ladakh. The photos show feral dogs attacking wild animals, including black-necked crane and snow leopard.
“Street dogs pose a huge threat to the wildlife in Ladakh,” Sultan said. “They are creating a lot of problems for the black-necked cranes as they eat their eggs and disturb them by running after them.”
When asked about the measures being taken by his department to prevent dog attacks on wildlife, he said: “Sterilization is going on for controlling the dog population, but there is no impact so far. We need to do something different about this problem on the basis of scientific research.”
Sultan said his department, in collaboration with the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, Wildlife Conservation and Bird Club of Ladakh, and the Nature Conservation Foundation, carried out a survey recently that estimated the population of dogs in Changthang at some 3,500. Of these, about 1,200 dogs were believed to be within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius buffer of 13 breeding sites of black-necked cranes.
“Feral dog population in Ladakh is sharply increasing and is becoming a major threat to humans as well as wildlife,” said Narendra Patil, a wildlife researcher who was part of the survey. “There have been few incidents where humans have been mauled and devoured by these dogs and predation on wild herbivores is widely reported.
“During our interviews in 40 villages of Changthang region, we noted that dogs are very unambiguously perceived as a threat to people, livestock and wildlife in Changthang,” he said.
“Almost all the people interviewed were of the opinion that population of free-ranging dogs has to be controlled and their understanding is that dogs thrive on the food waste generated at tourist camps and military camps,” Patil said, quoting from the survey’s report.
Dogs thriving within wildlife habitats in Ladakh pose a serious challenge to the survival of wildlife species, Patil said. Records collected for the study found the breeding success rate for black-necked cranes had declined sharply, from 60 percent in 1995 to a dismal 29 percent in 2016.
“During our survey, we found out that dogs are almost entirely responsible for this decline, as they eat their eggs,” he said. According to a study published in Zoological Research, the total population of the black-necked crane as per the 2014 survey for Ladakh is 112, which includes 17 breeding pairs.
In China, many areas with black-necked crane populations have been declared nature reserves; researchers have suggested that efforts be made to involve all key stakeholders and protect the birds throughout their current known distribution range in India. This would help secure a brighter future for the breeding and the wintering population of the black-necked crane in the country. In India, the bird winters in small numbers in the northeastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, but breeds only in Ladakh.
“In Changthang in Ladakh all the tourism and development activities should be properly regulated especially at the nesting and feeding sites of the cranes,” researchers have suggested.
Dogs in India reportedly attacked animals from 80 species in a series of 460 attacks between September 2014 and June 2016, according to a study published in Animal Conservation late last year. Thirty-one of the species attacked were IUCN Red list threatened species, including four critically endangered ones.
In 68 percent of the attacks, the study says, the dogs were unaccompanied by humans. Most of the attacks were carried out by packs of dogs, with 45 percent of these attacks leading to the death of the prey. Nearly 48 percent of the incidents were reported in and around wildlife protected areas, suggesting that dogs have an important large-scale edge effect around protected areas in India.
Read our detailed article on the study: “Domestic dog: Is our best friend a foe for wildlife?”
“We emphasize that responsible dog ownership that focuses on population control, vaccination, adequate feeding and control of free-ranging behavior can reduce interactions with wildlife,” the study’s authors said. “However, in areas of conservation concern, control methods should also include active removal of unowned and feral dogs.”