Tracking threatened birds

Tahir Shawl
On a Chilly but bright sunny morning of September 2013 an Air India flight lands me at Kushok Bakula Airport at Leh. The visit to Ladakh was for a very special and important conservation cause or rather in pursuit of a dream come true for me. I was going to harvest the results of the seeds imbibed during my tenure at Leh as Wildlife Warden four years ago. I had mooted out a proposal to Wildlife Protection Department of the state to devise and develop scientific management planning for the protection and conservation of some of our most threatened avian species especially Black-necked crane, the state bird of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Bar-headed geese, the highest flying bird ever recorded so far and are summer visitors to Ladakh and breed only in this region in India.The project encompassed studying their migration pattern and habitat utilization using modern and advanced scientific tools like satellite telemeters, neck collars/bands and leg rings.
For devising a strategy for the conservation of our threatened migratory birds and their habitats, it is essential to obtain baseline information about their breeding grounds, migratory routes, stop-overs and duration of stay at each site and the annual fluctuations in their number arriving at a place.
The study was first initiated for Bar-headed geese at Gharana wetland near India- Pkistan border in Jammu region of the state in March 2012 and later extended to Ladakh with addition of Black-necked crane, the state bird of Jammu and Kashmir and threatened avian species.
In Ladakh
The Indian trans-Himalayan region in Ladakh holds a distinct position as a bio-geographic zone for supporting unique wildlife species most of them being rare and endangered. About 33 species of mammals 276 species of birds and more than 700 species of plants, predominantly herbs and shrubs, have been reported from this region. Apparently barren, this high altitude cold desert region in Jammu and Kashmir, experiences extreme low temperature and rain fall leading to low environmental productivity. Nevertheless, this region supports the richest wild sheep and goat community and is represented by eight species and sub-species of ungulates.
This is the only place within Indian limits where Black-necked crane (BNC) and Bar-headed geese (BHG) visit and breed during summer. These bird species are considered as threatened and their global population shows declining trend. The estimated number of BNC in Ladakh was around 80 in 2009 where as the 2013 estimate shows the number around 100.Its global population is less than 6000.
In Gharna
Hardly at a distance of 40 kilometers from the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, the Jammu town, is located a marsh land area stretching along India-Pakistan border. Most part of this area is under paddy cultivation and produces one of the best qualities of Basmati rice. A small part of this marsh land has legal status as Wetland Conservation Reserve. It was during 2004 when I, as Wildlife Warden Jammu, on a birding trip to Gharana, caught sight of a flock of Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus). This was the first sighting report of Bar-headed geese from Gharana wetland. Since then about 4000 to 5000 Bar-headed geese visit every winter Gharana and adjoining marsh lands like Kukrian,Pargwal etc besides 15000 and 20000 birds of different species.
Not only the migratory and resident birds are under threat but the wetland reserve itself may disappear in near future if steps, on war footing, are not taken to save this important and almost the only wintering ground of Bar-headed geese in Jammu and Kashmir.
In an effort to protect this habitat of bar-headed geese and important biodiversity I discussed and persued the issue with Director Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Dr Asad Rehmani to get it declared as an IBA (Important Bird Area) along with some other areas of Jammu region and prepared a check list of birds of Gharana first in 2004. We later conducted bird flu surveillance and bird ringing exercises in 2006 and 2010 with technical assistance from BNHS. During March 2013 we deployed satellite transmitters, in collaboration with WII, on two bar-headed geese at Gharana to study migration pattern and habitat utilization. The study further aimed at looking for the link between Ladakh and Gharana populations of Bar-headed geese. The Jammu and Kashmir state has the distinction of being the only state in India hosting both wintering population ( in Jammu) as well as breeding population (in ladakh) of Bar-headed geese .
Trapping and Deploying Satellite Transmitters
After my arrival at Leh I along with colleague scientists Dr Asad Rehmani Director Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai , Dr Bilal Habib from Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, spent two days at Leh acclimatizing, discussing our methodology and buying necessary provisions for the field.Along with Intesar Suhail ,Wildlife Warden Leh, we left Leh on 15 September and after day long journey by road reached Chushul, a small sleepy hamlet situated at an elevation of 4400 meters, near India -China border, in Changthang region of Ladakh.On our arrival at Chushu, around dusk, we straightway moved to Tso-Gul-Tso, a marsh nearby, where a pair of black-necked crane was reported to be present.
We along with Ali Hassan and his son Skinder , the trained bird trappers from Bihar, conducted recci of the area, laid traps and waited for the Black -necked cranes to get trapped till late evening. We were not able to get any in hand and decided to return to our Rest House at Chushul.
Next morning we were up and ready by 4’Oclock.There was chill in the air. We proceeded to the target site we had visited last evening and waited, sitting in our vehicle, till dawn. The pair of cranes was still roosting in water. Ali Hassan laid leg nooses at strategic locations using his experience and skills, gained by him almost over forty years of experience as one of of the most skilled Indian bird trappers, as we continued waiting for the birds to come out of water and get trapped..
Patience, endurance and persistence are pre-requisites for any person to be a good and successful field wildlifer. We saw the cranes coming out of water and assumed they would be trapped soon. Contrary to our assumption they continued walking and foraging in the vast marshland in a direction away from noose traps. We moved to new nearby location to recce and identify other potential sites for trapping Bar-headed geese and Black-necked cranes.
In the adjoining valley across the hill, very close to India-China border, I was spell bound to experience spectacularly awesome sight of a large number of Tibetan Wild Ass (Kiang), three pairs of Black-necked cranes and flocks of Bar-headed geese along with other bird species and some domestic yaks sharing huge expense of this marsh land covered with a white blanket of salt. This valley comprised of three localities viz; Sirding, Tingru and Rala with no human population residing here during summer.
Back at our previous location at Tsu-Gul-Tso the cranes were advancing towards the noose traps while foraging and wading through the marsh. Soon it was a joyous moment for us when we saw a female Black-necked crane getting trapped at around 10.35 AM. Without losing much time we silently and cautiously took some biometric measurements, Put two colour leg bands on left leg and deployed a satellite telemeter on it. The crane was quickly released very safely. We watched the bird delightfully while it joined her companion after taking a couple of small strides and flights.
The first black-necked crane in India with a satellite transmitter deployed on it was foraging again peacefully with her companion at the Tsu-gul-Tso marsh land in Chushul while a satellite above in the sky had started giving us signals about its location.
Next day, on September 17, we deployed satellite telemeters on two Bar-headed geese at Rala and Tingru near Chushul. In total we collared and ringed four bar-headed geese. The neck collars/ bands, each bearing a specific number, were also put on four Bar-headed geese.
The second Black-necked crane was captured at Tibra near Hanley on September 21, around 2.45 PM. A satellite transmitter was deployed successfully on this crane along with leg bands.
(The author is District Soil Conservation Officer Jammu)