Love versus Legality in Indian Crane Conservation

A single Sarus crane with neck high and wings outstretched, standing in a wetland field.

In February 2022, a farmer named Arif found an injured Sarus crane on his farm in Uttar Pradesh, India. Arif nursed the crane and brought him home. Over time, a deep bond developed between Arif and Sarus. The bird would follow Arif wherever he went, and if Arif went far, Sarus would return home and wait for him. While other family members didn’t share the same level of attachment, they were comfortable with the bird and appreciated his presence.

Arif’s home, located in Mandkha village in Amethi district, is a vibrant place with numerous livestock and a dog named Pinki. A well-constructed shed houses the livestock in a clean and hygienic environment. Arif, being a farmer, grew up surrounded by various animals. In the past, his family had forty cows, which have now been replaced by other livestock. Sarus was welcomed into this environment.

According to the family, Sarus was never caged; he would fly during the day in the fields but return home in the evening. Gradually, Sarus became a part of Arif’s family, with Arif considering him his son. Sarus would play with Arif’s children and Pinki. Arif’s sister shared that Sarus would dance upon seeing Arif returning home, and they all ate together, with dal, rice, and potatoes being the crane’s favorites.

Recently, videos featuring Arif and Sarus went viral. The interactions between the two were characterized by affection, and it became evident that Arif’s crane had grown highly attached to him after being treated and cared for. 

In this case, however, the media and the politicization of the incident had consequences on the agency of both Sarus and Arif. This situation attracted the attention of state authorities. The Sarus crane is classified under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) Amendment Act of 2022. Section 39 mandates that any individual who obtains government property, including capturing a bird, must report the acquisition within forty-eight hours to the nearest police station or authorized officer, and if required, hand over such property to the relevant authorities. Section 57 places the burden of proving possession, custody, or control of any captive animal, animal article, or meat on the accused.

Arif’s Sarus has now been captured and forcibly relocated to Kanpur Zoo, where he is being kept in captivity. Arif faces official charges for domestication under the WLPA.

Who are Sarus Cranes?

The Sarus crane is the tallest flying bird globally and holds the prestigious status of being the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, India. They thrive in agricultural fields and artificial wetlands, and they have greatly benefited from the human-made infrastructure developments that have unfolded in the region over the past few decades. These developments include the introduction of water canals and paddy fields during the Green Revolution in India. 

The Sarus crane holds a significant place in the folklore and folk music of various communities. Historically, the Sarus is mentioned in the poetry of Kalidasa (5th–6th CE) and in texts like Babar Nama (15th-16th CE). The bird’s portrayal as a monogamous species capable of expressing emotions, as seen in the Ramayana, highlights the practice of integrating detailed behavioral observations about animals into stories that endure for centuries. Similarly, the Sarus holds a prominent position in Buddhist religion, as evidenced by Siddhartha’s encounter with one.

Three Sarus cranes with red heads and grey feathered bodies stand together in a field.
Two adult (right) and one juvenile (left) Sarus cranes, who show the standard red and grey feathered coloring distinctive of the species. Photo by Sanjaya Tha Shrestha, 2019.

Human-crane encounters happen all over India. Sarus cranes share their living spaces with farmers in the agricultural fields of Uttar Pradesh. We study interactions between humans and Sarus cranes in the agricultural fields of the Barabanki and Sitapur districts. Our work reveals that communities relate to Sarus cranes in various ways. For some, cranes are friends or companions, while for others, they are like siblings.

Their stories, perceptions, emotions, and interactions with the birds are captivating. For example, one woman shared that she sometimes instructs her children to call out, “Sarus aunt, please show us your dance.” While the children observe and play with their crane “aunt,”  she can complete her work in the field.

People are also aware of the territorial habits of the Sarus. Pappu, a man in his early forties, said:”The field is now watered, soon all the insects shall come up. The Sarus will feed on these insects along with the potatoes. It is presently a suitable place for Sarus to spend its time here. Tomorrow when another nearby field gets watered, the pair will go to that farmer’s field.” These experiences indicate that Sarus cranes are highly social creatures with decision-making abilities.

Emotional Human-Crane Encounters

In our research, we have furthermore encountered stories and experiences where farmers often view Sarus cranes as akin to humans, working tirelessly in the same landscape. A farmer from Ambedkar Nagar in Uttar Pradesh commented, “If seen from a distance, they look as if humans are sitting in the field. On a foggy day, it appears as if a man covered in a foggy sheet is farming at a distance.”

Three Sarus cranes stand in a farm field as a woman walks by near them carrying a basket, demonstrating human-crane encounters.
Cranes and human farmers sharing space in Uttar Pradesh. Photo by authors, 2023.

Another woman in Kotwa Kalan village expressed that a Sarus works to feed their family and sustain themself, much like how humans work to feed their own families. Such worldviews are prevalent in the landscape.

Following the popularity of Arif’s videos, we were able to meet him and his family in Uttar Pradesh. Arif’s family shared that on some occasions, other Sarus cranes came to take him back, but Arif’s Sarus refused to leave and hid inside the home. Sarus’s behavior highlights the need for deeper research into the emotional cognition of Sarus cranes.

It is evident that there is a reciprocal exchange of emotions between Sarus cranes and the human communities they share their space with. The various names given by humans to their relationships with Sarus cranes, their stories, and their actions serve as evidence of this. Sarus cranes also respond to the feelings displayed by humans in their relationships with them. The intensity of these responses varies based on the unique character of each Sarus.

Regulation or Subjugation?

These interactions, however, do not exist in isolation; they are also influenced by larger socio-political and economic factors, where technology and social media play significant roles in shaping perspectives and disseminating information.

These approaches tend to not fully recognize the rights and agency of animals, nor the marginalized communities in contact with them.

It is important to note that the WLPA follows a “fortress conservation” model, primarily focusing on creating ecological solutions, often neglecting the coexistence of species and humans within ecosystems. Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in the criminalization of humans living in proximity to wildlife areas, as notably, almost 99% of Sarus cranes inhabit areas outside designated protected zones.

Supporters of capturing and keeping Sarus cranes in regulated captivity argue that allowing them as “pets” could potentially harm and damage the wildlife population. In 1861, a British ornithologist observing Sarus cranes in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh, noted that, “Young birds are easily reared by hand and become very tame and attached to the person who feeds them.” KS Gopi Sundar, who has studied Sarus cranes since 1998, also mentioned that young Sarus in zoos readily bond with their caretakers, making it challenging to later reintroduce them into the wild. These comments coincide with Australian zoologist Konrad Lorenz’s infamous study of imprinting, or the tendency of young birds to follow their real or “foster” parents—including humans.

An open field where numerous cows and cranes graze together, and a human bicycles past.
A field in Uttar Pradesh where cranes, cows, and humans share the same space. Photo by authors, 2023.

We also had a conversation with two wildlife rescuers brothers from Delhi who have been rescuing kites since 2010. They believed that, according to the law, the forest authorities must facilitate the return of the Sarus crane to its avian family. They insightfully emphasized that the initial fear displayed by Sarus would have gradually subsided as he realized that Arif was a safe presence, which likely led to imprinting. Although they denied having such interactions in their years of experience, they were concerned that any additional human interactions would only further domesticate the bird. The brothers pointed to the lack of awareness among citizens about safe rescue procedures, which creates challenges for both wildlife and the people involved.

Crane Coexistence

Human-wildlife coexistence is an emerging field of research in conservation studies. It challenges traditional colonial perspectives regarding human-wildlife conflicts and broadens the scope of conservation efforts by considering the stewardship, perspectives, and belief systems of communities living alongside wildlife. This approach aims to address conservation challenges in more relevant and meaningful ways.

Arif’s Sarus crane is presently kept in a secluded area within Kanpur Zoo to enable it to “unlearn” its domestication and regain its “natural” bird behavior. The bird is housed in a quarantine enclosure measuring forty by twenty-five feet, with no human or avian social interaction. The zoo’s director, Krishna Kumar, noted that Sarus had begun to eat super worms, various feeds, and crops and that it had adapted to pecking at food with its beak rather than being hand-fed.

The media and the politicization of the incident had consequences on the agency of both Sarus and Arif.

In Arif and Sarus’s case, it becomes clear that the conflict between humans and wildlife appears to be more of a generated conflict between human societies; Sarus and Arif have simply endured the consequences borne of a larger problem. Arif, who is accustomed to the presence of Sarus and other livestock in his field, is unaware of wildlife laws. Sarus developed a bond with Arif and began to trust him, not knowing it would eventually separate them.

There is thus an urgent need to move beyond criminalization and policing strategies in wildlife conservation efforts, as these approaches tend to establish a hierarchy that does not fully recognize the rights and agency of animals, nor the marginalized communities in contact with them. To mitigate negative human-animal interactions, there needs to be a ground-up approach that includes the ecological experiences and knowledge of communities sharing their living spaces with wildlife. It is essential to broaden the provisions of wildlife protection laws to promote coexistence—however that might look.

Featured image: A Sarus crane “dancing” in a wetland with wings outstretched. Photo by Ashish Bal Dikshit, 2016.

Dipti Arora is an interdisciplinary research scholar studying natural resource management by navigating pathways through political ecology and the power dynamics in the society. She is also interested in covering the stories of people and their relationship with nature. Twitter. Contact.

Astha Chaudhary is a research ecologist working in the Terai-Arc Landscape in Uttar Pradesh. Her main interests are in understanding wildlife through local perspectives. She is also involved in documenting traditional folktales, as they carry important information regarding human history, culture, and their relationships with nature. Twitter. Contact.

This piece has been covered with the help of Coexistence Fellowship sponsored by Coexistence Consortium.