This is My Story, I am Crane Karma

This is an incredible story of a bird, who is a juvenile Black-necked Crane called as ‘Thrung Thrung Karm’ or simply ‘Thrung Thrungs’ in Dzongkha, the national language of BhutanIt is a story of finding solace, all alone, and in a place when its kind are hundreds of miles away in their summer habitat. It is a story of friendly bird, appropriately, named ‘Karma’ not for its association with Karmic law but for it being white (Karp means white in Dzongkha). Karma’s story is as interesting as the facts and beliefs of its species. Karma is now stable and rehabilitated at Phobjikha under the care of Black-necked Crane visitor center.

Each winter, Black-necked Cranes fly several hundred kilometers from the Tibetan Plateau in China. With its incredible flying skills and energy, and perhaps due to its sheer will power, it crosses the mighty Himalayas flying at an incredible height of 20,000 feets and maximum speed of 90 kilometers an hour to finally descend to flat valleys in central and eastern Bhutan between 1,770 to 3,015 meters. The Black-necked Cranes are regular winter visitor and prefers wetlands and paddies which are well fed by fresh water. Since Buddhism has deep rooted history in Bhutan, fellow citizens tend to associate everything with Buddhism and so is Black-necked Cranes’ habitat. All the winter habitats of this bird in Bhutan is considered to be blessed by the Great Indian Saint, Guru Padmasabhava. The Bumdeling and Lhuntse valley in the East, Bumthang valley in the Cantral and Khotokha and Pbobjikha valley in Western Bhutan are home to Guru Padmasambhava’s sacred treasures, caves and temples. Buddhism is simply flourishing and arrival of this heavenly birds sanctifies the valleys. Phobjikha valley is the the largest habitat of Black-necked Cranes in Bhutan and also the largest natural wetland in the country. The wetland has been recently designated as the third Ramsar Site.

Talking about the story, lets understand Karma’s species first. Black-necked Cranes, scientifically know as Grus nigricollis, is a large migratory bird which breeds and migrates within China and few places outside China. Bhutan is the largest non-breeding habitat outside China. Small numbers of Black-necked Cranes are also found in isolated pockets of India such as Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Black-necked Cranes was the last of the 15 species of the Cranes to be discovered in remote Tibet by Przevalski, a Russian naturalist in 1876. It is also called as the Tibetan Crane or the Alpine Crane. On an average it weighs about 5.3 kilograms and can stand at 139 centimeters with its wing span spreading two meters. Its body is whitish-grey with black head and upper neck. Its primaries and secondaries, tail, and legs are black as well. A distinct red patch of bare skin adorns its crown. Juvenile Black-necked Cranes have yellow-brown feathers on the crown and a grey abdomen. Male and females are difficult to differentiate though females are usually slightly smaller in size. The birds make loud high pitch calls. If you happen to be in crane habitats, observe the crane dance.  Dancing of cranes is associated with courtship and it enhances pair bonding. Such dances include bowing, running, jumping, wing flapping and tossing of grasses.

Black-necked Cranes are much revered and respected in all its habitat (Bhutan, China and India). Especially in Bhutan, Black-necked Cranes are revered as Lhab Bja or the ‘heavenly bird’ and often associated with luck and fortune. It also features in one of the most common paintings of Tshering Nam Dru The Six Symbols of Longevity as Bja Tshering. Its mysticism is comparable to Dragons, Garuda and snow lion. There are many folk songs and tales which often glorifies the bird’s beauty, elegance, affection, bondage and its lovely calls. It is often considered as a symbol of loyalty and devotion as they are believed to mate for life. Because of these social considerations the bird has received both social and legal protection in Bhutan and continue to receive much conservation attention. The bird is also the logo of Bhutan’s pioneer environmental NGO called the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN).

The Black-necked Cranes visits Bhutan in October and depart to its summer habitat in March after spending roughly five months. Each November, the community of Phobjikha valley welcomes this feathered guest with the Black-necked Crane Festival as a mark of respect and to advocate conservation of this vulnerable species. Come November 11 and it will the 18th edition of the Annual Black-necked Crane festival. In Bhutan, the cranes are seen roosting in shallow ponds and river banks, feeding on wetlands, paddies and potato farms. The prefer to stay in areas with excellent visibility to keep watch for predators. They sleep in groups ranging from as small as few individuals to large groups of 300 individuals in Bhutan. In Phobjikha, for instance, a particular roost was crowded with 300 cranes last winter. Bhutan receives close to 500 Black-necked Cranes each year. Last winter, a total of 609 cranes visited the country, of which three-fourth wintered in Phobjikha. Since 1987, the number of cranes visiting Bhutan has doubled likely due to the healthy habitats in Bhutan and due to long-term conservation efforts of Government, conservation partners, communities and RSPN. Since 1987, the number of cranes have increased from about 370 to 609. The majority of cranes winter in Phobjikha valley. The valley is a precious natural heritage for the Bhutanese with outstanding universal value such as unique natural beauty.

So our story’s protagonist, Karma, was found in lower valley in the afternoon of 6th January 2016. We don’t know whether it is a male or female. It can be quite cold and windy at this time of the year as it is the peak winter period and Karma must have endured the cold and fear of predation. The locals who saw the helpless bird kindly ringed the Manager, Mr. Santa, at the Black-necked Crane visitor center of RSPN. Immediately the center’s assistant, Mr. Tashi reached the scene, who took close to three hours to get hold of Karma. It was with much caution and care that the juvenile Crane was caught. The bird was severely injured with its left wing unable to move. The degree of injury could not be established and more over, there were no major cuts or bleeding. But Tashi could make out how traumatized the little bird was. As we read this story, Crane Karma is already in the improvised facility for eight months. It has not seen its kind for about six months.

With the support of local officer, Karma was examined, nursed and fed. It spent its first few nights in one of the Crane center’s room as there were no facility to cater such cases. Food grains such as wheat, corn and chicken feeds were fed with fresh water. To further supplement its diet, raw eggs were fed. It was observed that, Karma was restless and constantly making calls. The pain it went through, both physical and mental, is something we can never imagine and comprehend.  Later, Karma was moved to a wooden shack near the center which was little larger than one meter by one meter in size with transparent sheet roof.  With passing days, the Center managed to expand the facility in terms of size and ventilation. Mr. Tashi, the assistant at the center, was an excellent carpenter, so it was fairly easy to make the enclosure facility swiftly.  Karma now had rectangular mesh wire facility which measured 2.5 meters by 4 meters and roofed with transparent sheet at the height of two meters.  A pond was also made inside the facility which had fresh water flowing in. To avoid too many attention and to discourage visitors taking photographs of Karma, proper signages were placed at the facility. The staffs started feeding worms, chopped turnips, radish, spinach and grasses. Egg shells were also fed regularly but in quantities appropriate to the bird. At one time, in June, Karma weighed seven kilograms.

Upon the advice of ornithologists, a mirror was placed in the facility and lo!, Karma’s refection was a delight as it gave an optical companionship to the bird. Karma would occasionally look at the mirror, peck at it, bite and stay stunned. One of our colleague at RSPN was so amazed to see such behavior that he committed to sponsor a large mirror for Karma. Center staffs also played Black-necked Crane’s calls through their mobile phones to make Karma comfortable. Often, it was observed that when crows flew from above and made their calls, Karma would restlessly run around and make high pitch calls. Most of the time Karma would preen its feathers, flap its wings, walk, dig muds with its long and sturdy beak and feed on the grains and edibles in the wood-cut out container. It would calmly sleep on its one leg for elongated time with its head tugged in to its wings or rested on its body. Karma is growing each day and it was easy to notice the growth in size and color change in its plumage. It is an intelligent bird and the center staff have no difficulty handling it. As soon as Mr. Santa, knocked the door of the facility, which is his ritualistic manner to enter and feed the bird, Karma would straighten its neck, feel excited and stay aside while Mr. Santa filled up the wooden container. If, sometimes, the meals were not served on time, Karma would make prolonged loud calls.

While Karma was enclosed in the facility, stories of few cranes returning to get Karma or potentially looking for it was murmured by local folks and tourist guides. Whether truth or myth such incidents could be possible in nature.  One traditional folklore paints similar picture of a Crane returning from Tibet with lump of rock, supposedly medicine, which it feeds or applies to an injured Crane and together they take flight to far north. However, there has been no scientific quest or answer to such beautiful beliefs and notion. Karma’s stories were well received in social network sites and the print media. Karma is indeed well known!

During the same period, RSPN started communicating about the case with various agencies within the government and received the required support to help Karma. RSPN also started raising fund to build a proper rehab facility for Karma. The center’s Facebook page was used as a medium to spread the situation of the bird and also to update its state of health. Visitors to the Crane center would see Karma and then donate through the manager specifically for the wellbeing of Karma. Through crowd funding and modest donations, about Nu. 700,000 was mobilized. RSPN needed money to conduct medical examination of the bird and after exploring all possible means, the National Animal Hospital finally agreed to depute veterinarians and equipment to conduct radiographic imaging (X-ray) of the bird. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation institutions and veterinarian were consulted and support were sought for. In May, Karma was examined under strict guidance and few days later the radiographic image results came out. It showed that, in its left wing, there were multiple bone fractures and callus formation has commenced. It had ankylosed joint with dislocation and deformity. The report concluded that Karma may never be able to go to the wild, let alone flying back to Tibet! This is a unique case and Crane Karma is perhaps the first Black-necked Crane that has spent a full summer in Bhutan, at least by RSPN’s record since 1987.

Since no scientific assessment was conducted, to what happened or who injured Karma, it is impossible to ascertain whether it is a wild animal predation or feral dog attack. Stray and feral dogs is a major threat to the cranes across all the habitats in the country. In February 2015 too, a similar case was encountered where an adult crane was found in similar condition. But, unlike Karma, that crane had no injuries and it was released to wilderness after 64 hours of captive rehabilitation.  Such cases of injuries in the wild are quite common and RSPN’s records show several case from the past but none like the singular case of Karma.

Since, Karma was a very special bird, the center decided to have a special photo shoot for it in August. Bhutanese photographer and pro-conservationist, Mr. Karma Jigme, volunteered to photo shoot Crane Karma. It is not a mere co-incidence that both the subject and the photographer, in this case, had a common name ‘Karma’. It was, may be, the good ‘Karma’ that brought them together. So, Photographer Karma spent several hours spread over two days photo shooting Crane Karma. Two of them were so well acquainted that they could stay too close within few feets apart and photographer Karma could jostle around in any manner to get the best shots. You might want to visit the Facebook page of the center and see the pictures that were shot. A short video of less than two minutes on Crane Karma will be launched in the first week of October.

While Crane Karma sees the raising sun submerge into western horizon and the inconsistent moon moving through the starry nights by day and night, it has no means to tell us how much pain it has to go through. What we see is a young Black-necked Crane happily surviving in the enclosure what it now calls its home. Far away in the Tibetan Plateau, it is most certain that Karma’s parents must be feeling its absence and not knowing Karma exists for real. Perhaps this winter we could see the unfolding events, if at all, the parents return to Phobjikha.

RSPN continues to raise fund to build a Crane Rehab Facility and the designs has been already prepared. It is hoped that, with such facility, future crane like Karma and other birds could be rehabilitated quicker. The story of Crane Karma is only one isolated story. There are many unaccounted case of bird injuries and each case is a learning process for the conservation society in Bhutan.