Black-necked crane


The black-necked crane is endemic to the Tibetan Plateau and is one of the Ecoregion Species for WWF’s Yangtze Basin and Mekong Complex Priority Places. In summer, the black-necked crane is found at extremely high elevations, typically 3000-4900 m, on the central and northern Tibetan Plateau where it nests in high altitude wetlands throughout Qinghai and the northern Tibet Autonomous Region as well as in adjacent areas of Xinjiang, Gansu, western Sichuan, and the Ladakh region of India. In winter, the black-necked crane migrates south, with about two-thirds of an estimated total population of 11,000 wintering on croplands in the valleys of the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its major tributaries in the south-central Tibet Autonomous Region. Of the remaining population, about 3560 winter in northeast and northwest Yunnan and western Guizhou, while about 462 are known to winter in Bhutan and 10 winter in Arunachal Pradesh in India.

Black-necked cranes leave their wintering grounds in late March and spend 5-7 days migrating to their northern nesting grounds. They return south again in late October and are able to fly over the Himalaya at incredibly high altitudes. Nesting occurs in May, and nests are generally made on small islands with unobstructed views in inaccessible areas of wetlands and mudflats. Each nesting pair lays two eggs with generally only one chick, if any, surviving to maturity. Although black-necked crane breeding sites are found throughout the central and northern Tibetan Plateau, the crane’s three most important nesting sites are considered to be the Zoige Marshes in northwest Sichuan, Shainza County in the central Tibet Autonomous Region, and the Longbaotan Wetlands in Southern Qinghai.

Black-necked cranes feed on a variety of foods, including plant roots, tubers, earthworms, grasshoppers, snails, shrimp, small fish, frogs, lizards, beetles, flies, small rodents, and other small vertebrates and invertebrates. In winter, however, black-necked cranes are highly dependent on waste grain gleaned from barley, wheat, and rice stubble fields for their survival. The black-necked crane roosts at night by standing in shallow areas of streams or ponds where it can hear predators approaching through the water. Adult black-necked cranes typically stand about 1.3 m tall and weigh 5-5.5 kg. Their red crown is actually a featherless patch of skin.

As the world’s only alpine crane species, the black-necked crane is unique among the cranes in that it resides almost exclusively at high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalaya, where for centuries it has been protected by local religious beliefs that discourage killing. The black-necked crane is tolerant of humans and their livestock, wintering in farming communities where it has grown dependent on grain stubble fields for its very survival. Thus the continued existence of the black-necked crane in its present numbers is directly dependent on human agricultural practices, and the fate of the crane is directly intertwined with that of humans. The black-necked crane is the most prominent flagship species of the Tibet and Himalayan Region’s many wetlands, which form the source areas of Asia’s most important rivers.
© WWF / Zhang Yifei
Black-necked crane
© WWF / Zhang Yifei

Threats and Challenges

Although reports and rumors are occasionally heard of outsiders killing black-necked cranes or stealing their eggs for an exotic meal, in general the residents of the crane’s habitat throughout the Tibet and Himalaya Region have a great reverence for their cranes. Thus, direct killing of cranes and collection of their eggs are not presently large problems. Nevertheless, the bird is directly threatened by habitat loss resulting from changing agricultural practices and loss of suitable plateau wetlands.

Throughout its winter range in the south-central Tibet Autonomous Region, the barley stubble fields that the black-necked crane depends on for waste grain are increasingly being plowed under soon after harvest each autumn. This results in the loss of a critical food source for the crane, since along with the barley stubble, the waste barley that is the crane’s primary winter food is also plowed under and rendered inaccessible. This change in plowing practices is the result of barley fields being increasingly planted with winter wheat each autumn and also the recently introduced belief that, if plowed under, barley stubble will decay during the winter and increase the fertility of fields, which is questionable given the cold, dry nature of the Tibetan winter. A second cause of the loss of barley stubble fields is the proliferation of greenhouses for growing vegetables around large towns on the Tibetan Plateau, most notably around Lhasa, which eliminates barley and other grain fields entirely.

Another threat to the black-necked crane is the widespread loss or alteration of wetlands throughout the crane’s range. This includes the draining of wetlands to increase pasture area, which is a particularly large problem in the Zoige Basin, and also the loss of shallow wetlands that is occurring due to climate change on the Tibetan Plateau, which is increasing the rate of evaporation, increasing the frequency of drought, and degrading the permafrost that underlies and supports many wetlands. Another cause of the loss of the shallow wetlands preferred by cranes is the damming of rivers and building of river levees that can completely eliminate the shallow riparian wetlands and floodplains preferred by cranes.

Yet another threat to black-necked crane habitat are the intensive campaigns to plant trees and willows along river corridors in the crane’s wintering grounds in the south-central Tibet Autonomous Region. Black-necked cranes are extremely wary of spending time near shrubs and trees that may conceal predators, preferring to feed and roost in open areas that offer long views of any approaching predator. Once planted with trees and shrubs, many floodplain areas along rivers are avoided by black-necked cranes, resulting in habitat loss, thus these tree and shrub planting campaigns should only be conducted after evaluating their potential impact on cranes.

Although relatively tolerant of people, the ever increasing populations of farmers, herders, and livestock throughout the black-necked crane’s range are no doubt resulting in increased disturbance of the crane. In breeding areas, such disturbance can have a particularly large impact on reproductive success if cranes are repeatedly scared off their nests. One particularly large human-related disturbance impact that has been documented is that of herder dogs eating both crane eggs and baby cranes.

WWF China's work that supports black-necked crane conservation

WWF first began efforts to protect black-necked cranes on the Tibetan Plateau in 2006, with launching of its black-necked crane project at the Longbaotan National Nature Reserve in Qinghai. This project has focused on supporting reserve rangers who protect and monitor cranes and also on educating herding families living in and around crane nesting areas about the need to protect their cranes. WWF is also in the process of nominating Seling Lake in the central Tibet Autonomous Region as a Ramsar site to give this important crane breeding area a heightened profile and improved future protection. In southern Tibet, WWF is investigating the degree of autumn plowing of barley stubble fields, which eliminates an important winter food source for cranes, and possible alternatives to this practice.

Finally, as part of WWF China’s High Altitude Wetlands, Yangtze, Mekong, and Climate Change Programmes on the Tibetan Plateau, WWF is actively increasing public awareness about the plight of the black-necked cranes and encouraging local communities to protect cranes.


The overall goal of WWF China’s black-necked crane protection efforts is to protect the plateau’s unique high altitude crane throughout the vast majority of its home range in western China. However, this will only be achieved with the cooperation of the local communities in the crane’s shrinking summer and winter habitats.