Further going towards the east of Wangdue Phodrang, Gangtey Gompa provides one of the most attractions in Bhutan. It dates back to the 17th century. A few kilometers past the Gompa, on the valley floor is the village of Phobjikha. This is the winter home of black necked cranes that migrate from the arid plains in the north to pass winter in milder and lower climate.
Gangtey Gompa, an old monastery dating back to the 16th century is the only monastery, which follows the Pelling Nyingmapa sect of school. This valley of Phobjikha is also a home of the rare Black Necked Crane, an endangered species that migrate from the Tibetan plateau in winter. There are about 450-500 cranes residing in Bhutan out of which 250-300 lives in this beautiful valley.
The Annual Black-necked Crane festival is celebrated in the courtyard of Gangtey Gonpa, in Phobjikha valley. The festival is an occasion for the locals to rejoice and celebrate the arrival of this endangered and majestic bird which becomes an inseparable part their daily lives during the winter months.
The annual black-necked crane festival is organized to generate awareness and understanding on the importance of conserving the endangered Black‐necked cranes; to strengthen the linkages between conservation, economic welfare and sustainable livelihoods of the community; provide an avenue for the local community to renew their commitment to conservation of the black-necked cranes, and to showcase their cultural heritage and skills.
The festival includes cultural programs such as folk songs and dances (some with black-necked crane themes) and mask dances performed by the local people, crane dances and environmental conservation-themed dramas and songs by the school children. The program usually starts by 9:30 am and lasts till late afternoon.
The festival is organized by the Phobjikha Environment Management Committee (PEMC), a local group composed of elected local leaders (with a strong female component), Government representatives, business community representatives, monks and Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) representative. The festival has become a part of the local culture in Phobjikha valley ever since it was first initiated by the RSPN in 1998.
Nestled in the inner Himalayas at about 3000 metres above sea level, Phobjikha is a wide alpine wetland valley that is considered the largest and the most significant wetland in the country. It is often cited for the harmonious co‐existence of its inhabitants with nature and the valley also holds great cultural significance. The valley is the most significant wintering ground of the rare and endangered Black‐necked cranes in Bhutan and has been protected since time immemorial by the local people’s traditional respect for all living beings. Every year, over 300 of the estimated 500 cranes that migrate to Bhutan spend their winter months in this valley. Additionally, the highly revered Gangtey Monastery that overlooks the wetlands surrounded by subsistence farms and natural forest areas makes Phobjikha a stunningly beautiful and sacred valley. Today, this glacial valley is an attraction not just to tourists but also pilgrims.
Besides being the home to the cranes, Phobjikha is also the livelihood base for about 5000 subsistence farmers who have aspirations for economic development. Since the early 1990s, the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), Bhutan’s only environmental NGO initiated an integrated conservation and development program with the sole objective of establishing a strong linkage between environment conservation and economic welfare of the local people. This approach was instituted because the RSPN felt that an unguided pursuit for economic development by the local community could not only severely undermine the ecological significance of the area but may also adversely affect the local livelihoods.
The Annual Black-necked Crane festival is an integral part of the Ecotourism (now Community based-sustainable tourism) initiative to promote local economic welfare through nature based tourism programs.
The success of the festival and its continuity depends entirely upon the support and contributions of the visitors and well wishers of conservation. Continued appreciation and corresponding support are essential in maintaining strong linkages between conservation and economic welfare of the local people. By viewing and participating in the festival you reward the community for their continued conservation stewardship. Funds mobilized through the Black-necked crane festival and other activities of the committee are deposited in a community owned bank account and managed by the committee for activities of common benefit to the community.