Photo credit: Risto Kuulasmaa
Mineral exploitation, infrastructure development and changes in agricultural practices are severely threatening the survival of the black-necked crane that is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas, says a new international study.
It calls for effective and powerful conservation measures by Chinese authorities to maintain unharmed the habitat of the crane, an Alpine species that breeds in the extensive landscape of high Central Asia, including Ladakh in India, whose global population is estimated at around 10,000.
Owing to the Tibetan Plateau's environmental inaccessibility to comprehensive field research, the black-necked crane, revered as a "spiritual bird" in Tibetan Buddhism, remains the world's least-studied crane species.
Under China's Western Development Scheme, many critical but unassessed human activities are pervasive in crane's breeding habitat, says the study, "Machine Learning Model Analysis of Breeding Habitats for the Black-necked Crane in Central Asian Uplands under Anthropogenic Pressures", published by Springer Nature last month.
However, it says, deficient knowledge on these threats are widely overlooked, which greatly constrains current research and regional conservation activities.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Xuesong Han of the College of Nature Conservation in Beijing Forestry University.
Falk Huettmann of the US Department of Biology and Wildlife in the Institute of Arctic Biology of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, was also associated with the study.
"The rapid development in the Tibetan Plateau, especially water conservancy projects and mining, is a big threat for the survival of black-necked cranes and other endemic species," Huettmann, a wildlife ecologist specialising in macro-ecology and global conservation, told IANS on the sidelines of the 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB 2017) in this Colombian city.
The human interference index is quite high in the Tibetan Plateau region, he added.
Quoting China's National Bureau of Statistics, the study says the overall gross domestic product of industry across the five administration regions increased by 356.7 per cent.
Such economic growth can only be established on aggravating environmental reforms and these have not been captured by the human interference index.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the black-necked crane, the flagship species in Tibetan Alpine wetland ecosystems, as "vulnerable" because of its decreasing global population of 10,070 to 10,970.
The northern parts of the Hengduan Mountains and the southeastern Tibet Valley, the northern side of the middle Kunlun Mountains, parts of the Pamir Plateau, the northern Pakistan Highlands and the western Hindu Kush are its main potential breeding areas.
The researchers also attribute the decline of the cranes to the change in cropping patterns and rise in population of feral dogs.
They observed their breeding habitats are commonly fragmented by fences in Zhaguo in Tibet, which prevent chicks from escaping from predation by the Tibetan foxes or dogs.
Highland barley was traditionally planted in the middle and lower reaches of the Brahmaputra river. However, the the government changed the land use from crane-edible barley plantations to "crane-unbeneficial" but highly-profitable cash crops such as rapeseed.
The study points out that the sown area increased by 186.9 per cent in 2005 compared with that in 1987. The massive Han Chinese migration for constructing tourism and affiliated infrastructure is especially serious.
Likewise, the large-scale construction of water conservancy projects -- nine large hydro power projects are scheduled or already constructed on the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers, the potential breeding area of the cranes.
In contrast to the Tibetan nomads, the hunting traditions of the local Uygur people also severely threaten the survival of cranes and other wildlife, says the study.
In summer, the black-necked crane migrates to the eastern Pamir, which in recent decades has been affected by frequent military activities, rampant terrorism and a massive Afghan refugee flow into northern Pakistan.
The researchers propose that threats and their links to the western development of China must be assessed for the long-term maintenance of the endangered crane species and other wildlife on the fragile Tibetan Plateau.
Vishal Gulati is a Special Correspondent with New Delhi-headquartered IANS news agency. He was in Cartagena for the Internews' Earth Journalism Network Biodiversity Fellowship Programme at the International Congress for Conservation Biology. He can be reached at [email protected]