In August 2019, President Ram Nath Kovind gave assent to a legislation to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The Union Territories came into existence on October 31, 2019. Among the many new tasks each of the new local administrations faced was to identify and declare a new state bird and state animal.

But a year and a half after they were created, Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir are yet to do this. This makes them the only two Union Territories in the country without these state symbols. These symbols play an important role in reflecting the state or Union Territory’s identity and driving conservation efforts for threatened species.

The former state of Jammu and Kashmir had the black-necked crane and Kashmir stag (hangul) as its state bird and state animal. Both species are rare and had been symbols of the state for a long time. But the black-necked crane is found only in Eastern Ladakh and the hangul is found only in Kashmir Valley. So, following the bifurcation into separate administrative divisions, the black-necked crane could no longer be the state bird if Jammu and Kashmir and the hangul could no longer be the state animal of Ladakh.

“Every state and Union Territories of India has symbols such as the state bird, animal and flower, which are recognised for their importance in that region,” said Vidyut Jha, a wildlife researcher. “They are chosen from the unique flora and fauna in the state and the Union Territory and represent the culture and the natural wonders of that particular state/Union Territory. These symbols play a vital role in boosting conservation and protection efforts, and shine a spotlight on species that are integral to a state or Union Territory.”

Push for selection

Local wildlife bodies are pitching in to help speed up the selection process by submitting their suggestions to the local administration of Ladakh. In December 2020, the Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh, an NGO working for the preservation of wildlife in the region, called on Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur at the Raj Bhawan. The delegation, led by its president Lobzang Visuddha and secretary Dorjey Daya, batted strongly for naming the black-necked crane as the state bird and snow leopard as the state animal of Ladakh.

Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary in Ladakh is home to antelopes and numerous other animals. Photo credit: Prakash R Iyer/Wikimedia Commons

“It was a great appointment with the head of the Union Territory,” said Visuddha. “He was apprised about the high concentration of avifauna species in the Union Territory and the importance of sensitising the local youth and general public to conserve and protect these species.”

Visuddha added: “His response was very positive and his office even tweeted our proposal after the meeting. He agreed that Ladakh is rich in terms of wildlife. We are positive that our proposal of recommending black-necked crane as the state bird and snow leopard as the state animal will get the nod.”

In India, Ladakh is the snow leopard’s main habitat, followed by the Lahul-Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh. The leopard is the region’s apex predator and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Experts put the population of snow leopards to be between 200-300 individuals in Ladakh alone and speak about the fragile relationship of their healthy population to the overall natural health of the mountains.

“Ladakh is internationally known as the snow leopard capital of the world,” said Visuddha. “A lot of attention is given to conservation in the region because of this species. Hence, it was our pick.”

The black-necked crane, meanwhile, found only in Eastern Ladakh’s high-altitude wetlands and marshes and is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. The birds arrive here as early as March for breeding and leave by October end or early November. Their habitat loss could lead to the extinction of this species, at least from this region.

“Ladakh is the only summer breeding ground for the bird in India and the number of breeding pairs are under 20 in the country at the moment,” said Visuddha. “The black-necked crane also commands high respect in the region. There are local songs that sing its praises. It is already a flagship species and many research projects are on in the Ladakh Union Territory for its conservation. This makes it a top contender for the state bird.”

Other contenders

The snow leopard and the black-necked crane are not the only contenders for the position of the state animal and state bird. Ladakh is a wildlife haven.

“The Ladakh Urial [endemic to the region], the Asiatic ibex or even the Himalayan brown bear could also be chosen,” said Jha. “Lesser-known and rare species such as the Pallas’s cat, Eurasian lynx, Tibetan argali, Tibetan antelope or Tibetan gazelle could also be considered. Even the wild yak called Dong could be picked. The wild yak and Tibetan antelope are found only in the easternmost border area of Ladakh called Chang Chenmo. Except for border security personnel, no one is allowed in the region without special permission from the Union home ministry.”

Among birds, over 300 bird species are spotted in Ladakh. “I would pick the Sellim’s Finch as the state bird, only if we are able to capture photographic evidence of its presence in Ladakh,” said Visuddha. “I am sure that the north-eastern border of Ladakh is the only habitat for this species. I would also go for the great rosefinch, Eurasian eagle owl, Tibetan snowcock or the Eurasian golden oriole.”

In the region that was formerly the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the black-necked crane is found only in Eastern Ladakh’s high-altitude wetlands and marshes. Photo credit: Lobzang Visuddha

But it is only the local administration that can give the final nod. They are currently reviewing the proposals and the final selection is expected soon.

According to the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh, “Members of the Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh called on Lieutenant Governor RK Mathur. Through a presentation, they apprised the Lieutenant Governor of the different species of birds and mammals of Ladakh. LG Mathur appreciated their initiative and assured his support in their projects. The Wildlife Conservation and Birds Club of Ladakh proposed the snow leopard and the black-necked crane be announced as the state animal and bird of Ladakh.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.