In Bhutan, Locals Dance Like Black-Necked Cranes to Help Conservation

Project 100DaysinHimalayas spots the rarest of the rare in the Himalayan birding paradise.  
crane festival in phobhijka valley Bhutan
Schoolchildren swoop and turn like the elegant black-necked cranes, at a conservation festival held for these migratory birds in Bhutan's Phobhijka Valley. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Every winter, over 300 black-necked cranes fly from Tibet into Bhutan’s bowl-shaped alpine valley of Phobhijka. The elegant cranes are classified vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Bhutanese know just how to greet them. Since 1998, local conservation efforts host a day-long Black-Necked Crane Festival in the courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery. Monks hold masked dances, school kids don black-and-white costumes and dance like cranes, and locals sell crane-themed handicrafts. Every now and then, a black-necked crane soars overhead in witness.

It’s the sort of reverence for nature that wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood music composer Shantanu Moitra encountered throughout their 12-day trip in Bhutan last November. From last February, the duo has been making a series of trips in the Himalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Tibet, as part of the #100DaysInHimalayas Project. (See their other stories here.) After watching the shows and dart-throwing contests at Phobhijka’s Black-Necked Crane Festival, Mukherjee and Moitra descended 3km into the valley to see the birds in the flesh. “There were hundreds,” Moitra recalled. “It’s the sight of them taking off in the huge valley that makes you realise the size of their wingspan (over 7ft!).”

punakha monastery in Bhutan

Punakha Dzong monastery stands at the confluence of Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River) in the fertile Punakha Valley. Among its precious inhabitants, is the endangered white-bellied heron. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Perhaps this respect for life is only natural in a country that is famous for annually measuring its gross national happiness. At least 60 per cent of the country is kept forested by law, a golden rule that affords trekking trails dotted with blossoming rhododendrons trees and a paradise for birders. As Moitra and Mukherjee travelled from Paro in the west to Trashigang in the east, they saw great hornbill, yellow-rumped honeyguide, and Ward’s trogon—all classified near-threatened by IUCN—not to mention Assamese macaque and golden langur. “Dhriti said he really works hard for these bird sightings in India.” Moitra recalled, “Here they were just hanging about in the middle of the road.”

Still, it took immense skill and perseverance to photograph the birds. Moitra remembers when they spotted the rare satyr tragopan in the subtropical rainforests of Yongkola, one of Bhutan’s best birding areas. “It was very difficult for me to see the bird,” Moitra confessed, since it was so well camouflaged, and he managed to spot it through binoculars only for a couple of seconds. “Dhriti took his big 600mm lens and slid down the mountain slope, and waited an hour and a half for the shot,” Moitra said.

But Mukherjee’s shining moment was yet to arrive. “We had a brilliant birder with us,” Moitra said, “and it was incredible to watch the game between Dhriti and him about who could spot more birds.” Around a bend in the Yongkola forest, Mukherjee motioned for the car to stop. “He said, ‘This is amazing’—I’ve never heard Dhriti say that, he is a very understated guy,” Moitra said, “He had just spotted the only other recorded sighting of the Oriental bay owl in Bhutan.” The moment was so auspicious that the driver quietly did a little jig. “The Bhutanese are so conscious and aware about nature that he danced in silence,” Moitra recalled, “They know that even happiness has a responsibility.”

great hornbill tingtibi bhutan

The casque, which is the cylinder on top of the great hornbill’s beak, isn’t just ornamental. It amplifies the bird’s nasal calls, and male great hornbills may duel with their casques for the right to mate with a female. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

oriental bay owl bhutan

The Oriental bay owl has a large range in South and South East Asia but is only rarely seen in Bhutan. This image is only the second recorded sighting in Bhutan. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

 

Bhutan’s snow-capped mountains and lush gorges are spectacular backdrops not just for birdwatchers but also Buddhist festivals. In Bumthang, Moitra found himself accompanying their driver to the Naked Dance Festival, held at Jambey Lhakhang monastery, built in the 7th century. On three consecutive nights, around midnight, 16 men chosen from the surrounding villages dance naked to the elements. They are accompanied by slow drumbeats and chants, in a sombre ritual meant to purify sins and usher a good harvest. “Most hill dances are slow because a lack of oxygen makes it difficult to move,” Moitra observed. The ritual was introspective, but outside, the air was festive with stalls hawking food and clothes. Both dancers and witnesses are believed to be blessed by the hour-long performance.

Follow Project #100DaysinHimalayas adventures here.

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    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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    Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife.

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