Persistent illegal sand and gravel mining in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, threatens one of the two known Indian winter habitats of black-necked cranes that fly in from Tibet at the end of every year.

Local activists awaiting the return of the cranes this year say that district authorities are refusing to take responsibility for the mining, which continues unabated, threatening the habitat of the bird classified as “vulnerable” in the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The cranes, which are known to nest in freshwater wetlands in high-altitude, usually arrive in Zemithang and Sangti, 200 km away, during November and December every year, and depart around February and March. They are yet to be sighted this year. In Zemithang, a 3-km stretch along the Nyamjang Chhu river is one of their wintering sites. Locals say even this stretch has not been spared from mining.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, the general secretary of a social movement called the Save Mon Region Federation, has appealed to Tawang’s deputy commissioner and divisional forest officer to stop the mining so that the wintering site of the black-necked crane is not disturbed.

Defying NGT order

Riverbed mining requires forest and environment clearances from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change as the riverbed is legally part of forest land.

A district administration official admitted that mining was banned in Tawang following a 2013 notification by the National Green Tribunal in response to a petition regarding large-scale illegal mining activity along India’s major rivers.

However, authorities in the district are passing the buck on the matter.

The divisional forest officer told this correspondent that sand mining did not come under the purview of the forest department as it is unclassified forest area, and said that it came under the department of minerals and mining instead. The district’s mining department did not respond to text messages and calls.

A government official, who did not wish to be identified, said that there is a huge demand for sand and gravel in Tawang, which adjoins China, as large construction projects, including roads and hotels are being undertaken. He said that local communities are indulging in mining as the administration looks on.

Gyatso blamed politicians and local administrative officials for the mining. He alleged that most of those involved in the mining operations are politically connected. He pointed out that one of the mining sites was right near the local administration office.

Revered cranes

The Monpa Buddhists of Tawang revere the black-necked cranes. A week ago, monks from the Tawang Monastery visited Zemithang to request people to stop the sand mining.

Last year, following a petition filed by the monks of Tawang through the Save Mon Region Federation, the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance given to the proposed 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydro-electric Project that was proposed to be located near Zemithang village. In its order, the tribunal pointed to the fact that the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project made no mention that it will have an adverse impact on the habitat of the black-necked crane. In its order, the tribunal had also acknowledged the cultural link of the bird with the Monpa Buddhists.

In Sangti, the second known wintering site of the black-necked crane in India, cranes did not arrive between 2009-’13. This was attributed to the destruction in their habitat and a change in the cultivation pattern in that area. Then in 2014, four cranes were sighted in Sangti while 25 cranes made Zemithang their winter home.

Recently, the birds were also spotted at a few other places in the state.

A survey in 2016-’17 to ascertain the number of wintering sites of the black-necked crane in India led to five sightings in the Chug Valley near Dirang in West Kameng district. According to Dr Daniel Mize of the Centre with Potential for Excellence in Biodiversity, Rajiv Gandhi University, who led the survey, five such cranes were spotted in the rice fields of the Chug Valley. He said that the survey also led to the sighting of a single black-necked crane at Doblo River in Shergoan in the same district. But the bird stayed there just for a day. Mize explained that either the cranes were looking for new sites or it was a case of vagrancy.

Last year, more than 15 black-necked cranes were sighted in the state. However, two of them were killed when they got snagged on a high-voltage power line in the Sangti Valley – the second such incident since 2007. Mize and other experts say that power lines should be shifted from their current location at the main wintering site in the Sangti Valley to make the area more welcoming for the cranes.

“The cranes do not like to be disturbed by humans or feral dogs, which has been the case in Sangti Valley,” said Mize. “They like calm rice fields, since they eat rice, and other open fields. Human interference in habitat of the cranes is a huge danger.”

The fertile Apatani Valley in Lower Subansiri district of eastern Arunachal Pradesh was once the favorite site of these birds. According to Mize, a record 27 cranes visited Ziro in the Apatani Valley in 1954. But they haven’t been seen in that region since the seventies.

A study by experts attributed the disappearance of the cranes from the Apatani Valley to the loss of habitat and poaching. Experts fear that if precautions aren’t taken, the cranes will abandon Arunachal Pradesh altogether.

Black-necked cranes figure in India’s schedule I list under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India of 1972. According to Wildlife International, there are around 11,000 such cranes in the world.