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To see the tung-tung (or thung-thung), one has to travel to trans-Himalaya in Ladakh—where the air is thin, mountains bare and the ground covered with heavy moss.

For the nomadic pastoralists in remote eastern Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, who roam the Changthang plateau (at an altitude of around 5,000m above sea level), tung-tung is the name for the Black-necked Crane, a bird celebrated in mountain folklore and revered in Buddhist culture.

“The crane is a part of the mountains as inseparable as the summer flowers. Its sonorous call is familiar to all," says K.S. Gopi Sundar, who is a senior scientist with the US-based International Crane Foundation and director of its SaruScape programme on the Sarus crane in India.

The 4ft-tall black and white crane sports a red crown and is endemic to the high altitude wetlands of trans-Himalaya. It is found in India, China and Bhutan. The cranes are summer visitors to Ladakh where they breed in the marshy wetlands of the Changthang plateau.

However, it is a threatened species today. Climate change is slowly taking a toll on the high-altitude wetlands, which are shrinking. Besides, humans are encroaching wetlands through agricultural expansion and the birds are also attacked by feral dogs.

The declining population of the crane has been a matter of concern for nature conservationists. In July, a three-week programme was organized in Ladakh to raise awareness about these birds.

The Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (Lamo) along with the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree) held workshops and exhibitions at Leh, Shey, Tso Moriri and Tso Kar, where schoolchildren participated in an “art for conservation project".

The children were trained to create miniature models of the Black-necked Crane. The bird models were later installed on their school campuses and also at the gallery space in Lamo. Besides, talks on habitat conservation and birdwatching sessions were held.

“Through the exhibition, principals of many schools, children, foreign tourists and the local population were made aware of the problems being faced by the Black-necked Crane in Ladakh," says Rinchen Dolma, media officer, Lamo.

Artist Niharika Rajput, the brain behind this conservation art project, is on a mission to “restore, protect and conserve all endangered wildlife through art." Endangered birds are of special interest to her and she travels and works only in the landscapes where they are found.

“Wildlife and ecosystems play a vital role in our survival. My project in Ladakh initiates an innovative community-based stewardship of the endangered Black-necked Cranes and its habitat to the benefit of the local communities and the environment," says Rajput.

She uses only three things to create miniature models of the crane—paper, wire and M-seal (used to seal leakages in water pipes). It takes her three weeks to finish one bird model.

At the workshops, Rajput taught the children to craft a bird model using paper, wire and poster colours. “I didn’t want to expose the children to M-seal as they were from junior grades," she says.

“I hope to use my art to reach out to people in as many landscapes as possible and join hands with conservationists to raise awareness," adds Rajput.

While she wants to revisit Ladakh, her next stop later this year will be the desert landscape of Jaisalmer, home to the Great Indian bustard, which is also endangered.

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