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New Delhi: The Zemithang valley in Arunachal Pradesh isn’t a part of any national park, sanctuary, biosphere reserve or elephant corridor, and does not have any significance from an archaeological point of view, and it is likely that India’s environment ministry will find no reason to block the planned 900 megwatts (MW) Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project.

Sacred symbol: Black-necked cranes are revered as the embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama by the Monpa tribe in the Zemithang valley. Photo Courtesy: Pankaj Chandan/WWF India

The endangered black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis) winters in Zemithang, where the local Monpa tribe reveres it as the embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama (late 17th and early 18th century), Tsangyang Gyatso, a Monpa.

Last year, three were seen in the valley. This year, the number went up to seven. “Till date, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) meetings have touched upon recommendations for forest clearance, but the fact that the Zemithang valley is a wintering habitat of the black-necked crane has not been part of the discussions," said Goutam Narayan of EcoSystems-India, a trust for biodiversity conservation in the North-East.

“Even though we are unaware of the exact location of the Nyamjang Chhu project, it is important that MoEF carefully assesses the likely impact on the black-necked crane, and other wildlife habitat, including the newly discovered Arunachal macaque (Macaca munzala)."

The valley itself is tucked away in a remote corner of western Arunachal Pradesh, sandwiched between Bhutan and China, and was in the news almost 50 years ago after the Chinese army invaded it in 1962. It is home to the Monpas, who number around 3,000.

If conservationists such as Narayan do not know about the exact location of the Nyamjang Chhu project, it is because state government officials and the developer Bhilwara Energy Ltd have been tight-lipped following controversies over the 2,000MW Lower Subansiri project and the 1,750MW Demwe Lower project.

Both state government officials and spokespersons for Bhilwara Energy didn’t respond to queries.

According to activists, the Nyamjang Chhu project involves the construction of a 11.2-metre-high concrete barrage across the river and an underground power house with six units of 150MW at an estimated cost of 7,228 crore to be completed in five years. Work on the project is yet to start, although the activists are convinced that it soon will and that the future of a few cranes will not be allowed to get in the way.

The black-necked crane, found in India, China and Bhutan, breeds in high-altitude wetlands (elevations of 3,000-4,900m above sea level). Little was known about it till as late as the 1980s because of its isolated habitat. The crane is a beautiful bird, and tall, standing 135cm tall when fully grown. It has a pale grey body, black head, flight feathers and tail, and a characteristic red crown. Unlike most birds that migrate from the northern hemisphere to the southern during winter, the black-necked crane migrates east to the lower eastern Himalayas. It flies back west at the onset of summer to breed.

In the Changthang region of Ladakh, where the crane breeds, people live in harmony with the species and regard it as a sacred bird. Sightings are regarded as a sign of good luck. In Hanle and Chushul, residents consider the arrival of the cranes as a sign of coming prosperity.

In Zemithang, the crane is not just one of the species the Monpas are worried about. In association with the Indian arm of WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), they are working on the conservation of the red panda, the Himalayan black bear, the musk deer, and medicinal plants and rare orchids. They have also banned hunting in the valley. “The sighting of black-necked cranes by villagers is a part of their effort to conserve and document the rich biodiversity of the area," said Pijush Dutta, landscape coordinator, WWF-India. Dutta added that the cranes are also central to the tourism activities initiated by the Monpas.

As the Monpas get ready to ring in their new year, Losar, this month, the future course of their lives, the Nyamjang Chhu and the black-necked crane hangs in balance.


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