Bhutan’s Black-Necked Crane Festival Drawing More Foreign Tourists
Some 500 tourists from around the world came to Bhutan to see the Black-Necked Crane festival, exceeding the number of locals.
By Chimi Dema | Kuensel
Standing tall, the magnificent Gangtey Monastery glowed in the early morning sun which shone over the Phobjikha valley with its pristine forests, subsistence farmlands and the black-necked cranes.
The much revered cranes went about their usual business, oblivious to the grand celebration in their honour and the large gathering at the courtyard.
Their occasional shrill calls got drowned in the crowd as people hustle and jostle in the courtyard for the celebrations to begin.
The villagers of Gangtey and Phobji gewogs (villages) arrived, dressed in their finest, carrying baskets stuffed with food and drinks. Visitors and tourists settled comfortably, readying their cameras to capture pictures of the locals and festivities.
They had come together to rejoice in the arrival of the black-necked cranes, an endangered species highly revered by the locals as heavenly birds, also known being a symbol of marital fidelity and prosperity.
Set against the clear, deep blue sky, the Black-Necked Crane festival highlighted the importance of conserving the species and its habitat while promoting eco-tourism for local communities at the same time.
Background of the Black-Necked Crane festival
Inspired by the visionary leadership of His Majesty The Fourth King who advocated environmental conservation, the festival is held annually on 11 November, to coincide with the birth anniversary of His Majesty. The locals said that this makes the occasion even more special and exciting.
The Royal Society for Protection of Nature organised the first festival in 1998 as part of the integrated conservation and development programme.
Source: Youtube/RoundGlass Journeys
The festival is also an occasion for villagers to renew their commitment to further conserve the beloved cranes. Organised by the dzongkhag administration, in collaboration with the Gangtey-Phobji environment management committee which comprises of several local stakeholders.
Black-Necked Crane festival is a good source of income for the locals
For Aum Sangay Dem, an elderly woman and the owner of a Homestay in Khewang village, Gangtey, crane conservation has been a windfall.
By offering homestay services, she earns more than Nu 15,000 from guests, particularly during the festival.
With Gangtey-Phobji wetland becoming the largest roosting ground for the cranes, supplemented by better conservation initiatives, Aum Sangay Dem said that the surge in the number of eco-tourists and birders in the valley has increased over the years.
“I make the maximum income during this time of the year as many tourists from across the world and birders come here to watch the birds,” she said.
By hosting such a festival in the locality, it is also an opportunity for the locals to showcase the culture and traditions, including handicrafts, food, and livestock.
Some stalls outside the festival ground displayed local products such as local cheese, honey, chilli pickles, highland vegetables and bamboo woven baskets, among others.
Favoured by the warmth of the brilliant sun, the festival venue echoed with laughter and the sounds of festivities such as folk songs, strong women competition, tug-of-war, and mask dances performed by monks.
As usual, the highlight of the festival was the locally choreographed ‘Crane Courtship Dance’ performed by the school children of the locality.
Donning crane costumes, children mimic the cranes by bobbing their heads and flapping their wings to the music, accompanied by the trumpeting calls of the birds.
Locals say that the cranes perform this dance when they arrive in Phobjikha from the Tibetan Plateau.
While the birds arrived late this year, about 50 of them managed to make it in time for the festival, with the first couple of cranes landing in the valley on 2 November.
A resident of Phobji gewog, Chado Gyeltshen remembered only some 100 cranes arriving in the wetlands when he was young.
Photo: Trek Earth
However, in the recent years, Phobjikha have seen the highest count with approximately 500 individuals arriving every winter.
An official with the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature said that the increase could be due to the population growth of black-necked cranes globally.
While the locals attribute the increase to the warming of climate adding that it makes places at lower altitudes suitable habitats for the birds in winter.
“It could also be attributed to awareness and outreach programmes on the endangered species that have contributed to the conservation of a good habitat,” another resident said.
Black-necked crane sightings are auspicious symbols
In Phobjikha, farmers believe that if a crane flies over a farm, it will bring good harvest and prosperity.
During winter, the cranes become part of the locals’ daily lives, as they feed and roost on the peripheral sloped farmlands where potatoes and turnips are grown in the summer.
These endearing birds also hold special spiritual connections to the villagers. According to Chado Gyeltshen, before the birds descend upon Phobjikha valley on its arrival, they will circumambulate the Gangtey Monastery thrice and repeat the same while leaving.
“We believe that they are the reincarnation of the guardian deities of our valley and to us, this act represents the honouring of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the objects of refuge,” he explained.
Owing to its rare and vulnerable nature, the presence of the cranes in the country has been attracting more international tourists than before. Some 500 tourists from around the world came to Bhutan to see the Black-Necked Crane festival, exceeding the number of locals.
Helma Lodder, a tourist from the Netherlands planned her first visit to Bhutan specially to coincide with the festival.
“The climate is changing and the environment is degrading in the world now and therefore, any celebration pertaining to the preservation of nature and biodiversity seems fascinating to me,” she said.
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.