Demoiselles, like other cranes, suffer on account of habitat loss and degradation throughout their breeding and wintering ranges. With the spread of agriculture in the Eurasian steppes a large swath of the species’ breeding territory is threatened on account of disturbance, grazing and hunting.
In India, where the cranes winter, the primary problems are population increase and the resultant erosion of farmers’ tolerance for this crane. Cases of death from poisoning – both deliberate and inadvertent (pesticides) – are on the rise.
For cranes migrating to India another major threat along the migration path comes from hunting, which is prevalent in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The USGS website describes a hunting practice known as “soya”, which is used on the migrating Demoiselles: “Following traditional hunting practices, the crane hunters in Pakistan station themselves in valleys where the cranes pass on migration and use tame cranes to lure wild birds within range of rock-weighted slings (known as soya). Hunters hurl the soya into the air to entangle the flying cranes. In recent years, increasing numbers of hunters have taken up this traditional practice, while firearms have also been used with greater frequency. The Eurasian Crane and the critically endangered central population of the Siberian Crane are also affected by this practice. As many as 5000 cranes of all three species (10%-15% of the total population of migrating cranes) have been shot or captured in Pakistan in a single season, and the popularity of the sport continues to grow.“
The next morning I am at the Chuggaghar (the feeding centre set up by the residents of Khichan). It is dark but the last few stars bravely twinkle on. The desert air is cool and crisp. Khichan is still asleep and the Demoiselles can neither be seen nor heard. Behind the Chuggaghar, the desert begins. After a shallow nullah I can see the dim shape of the dunes.
A few hundred yards ahead, I have crossed the patch of Babool bushes and have reached the base of the first dune. From behind them, I can hear faint but unmistakable crane sounds. The Demoiselles are roosting somewhere behind the first row of dunes. I take off my slippers and climb the dunes – at this early hour in late February the sand feels cool and moist, like the clay on the banks of a river. I sit down facing east and wait for the sun. And the Demoiselles.
I do not have to wait long. The sounds increase steadily and creep closer. In an inspired choreography of nature, the bluish-hued pre-dawn desert slowly fills up with crane calls behind me as the sky before me fills up with the reddish glow of dawn.
The first cranes fly in from the north. They come in a long line flying over the dunes, the line dipping near the centre giving a faint impression of a V, mirroring the Vs of the soft pre-dawn contours of the dunes. They fly over me and pass over the Chuggaghar and then beyond it towards the sun. Soon, there are cranes flying in from all sides – all in the same long lines with a hint of a V at the center. They fly from over the dunes towards the Chuggaghar. Some of them fly past the Chuggaghar and then turn back towards the desert and start settling over the dunes. Others descend in the Chuggaghar to feed. By now, the sun is up and I am completely surrounded by cranes. For a brief moment my world dissolves in a symphony of white sand, blue sky, red sun and the beautiful silver grey of the Demoiselles.
Read the first of this two-part post