The airplane passenger of the month for October was an unusual breed of traveler, one who gratefully received first-class airfare even though the ticket sent him more than 2,000 km out of his way. He was trying to head south for the winter, got lost along the way, and has ended up with winter accommodations near Moscow—not quite the ideal warm-weather destination.
But this is no ordinary traveler. He and five of his pals tried this trip last year as well, and received an escort from the President of Russia, who was flying an ultralight plane of all things!
The passenger’s name is Raven, even though he is a Siberian Crane. The breeding grounds for his species lie in northern Siberia, and they travel the longest migratory route of any crane. While Raven’s attempted migration targeted a new wintering area that scientists are trying to establish in Uzbekistan, about 98 to 99 percent of what’s left of the species spends its winters at the shores of China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang Hu, according to Claire Mirande, Senior Director of Conservation Networking for the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
Other populations of the crane spent their winters in Iran and India, but hunting in countries throughout the crane’s migration routes has mostly wiped out them out.
Complicating matters further, Poyang is shrinking. Too many demands on the lake–from farms, factories, cities, as well as the 9,600 dams in the watersheds of the five rivers that drain into Poyang–have resulted in critically low water levels. The Three Gorges Dam has also had an impact, lowering water levels in the Yangtze river, which then helps drain Poyang faster than it should. Climate change has taken an additional toll on the lake, and the crane’s long-term prospects are so limited that it is considered critically endangered.
A new water control structure has been proposed where Poyang meets the Yangtze, one designed in part to help stabilize the lake’s levels, but the current plans would keep the water levels too high and drown the crane’s favorite food, eelgrass tubers.
Imagine if Lake Superior (the U.S.’s largest lake) started shrinking—the impact would devastate the local wildlife and also challenge the people who live near the lake and depend on it for survival.
“The Siberian Cranes are indicators of what’s going on with local communities,” said Mirande. “The pollution and poisons in the water, the fisheries shrinking in size as populations of fish are down, all these things and more need to be addressed.”
Once the environmental balance has been restored, she notes, the people benefit as well. Their fate is connected to the species, which has been a cultural icon for civilizations all along its migration routes, from Northern Siberia to Southern China, India and Iran.
“Our focus is on the Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve on the lake’s northeast shore,” she added. “If the species is going to make it, we have to start there. But we also need to look at the mud flats of the entire lake basin. The cranes move around, depending on water levels and available food. The right nutrition is critical for when they return to the breeding grounds in the north.”
Conservation efforts have expanded to include the Nanjisan National Nature Reserve and 15 locally protected areas scattered around the lake. In this way, the cranes have better access to food sources as the water levels rise and fall throughout the season. But while the government agencies that administer the protected areas do not manage how much water flows into the area, nor do they control how clean it should be, efforts have taken root to work with other government agencies in shepherding their resources so that the crane’s habitat can recover.
“Like any large country, the government is complex,” noted Mirande. “But on the many different levels, we need to recognize the good work that has been done. What’s important is finding the balance between human and wildlife needs.”
Because of all he has been through, Raven might never complete a full migration. But if the work at Poyang Lake is successful, his species may be able to survive and migrate without assistance in the future. While flying on an airplane can be fun, flying on one’s own is far better. After all, even a first-class seat doesn’t have enough room for a crane’s 7’+ wingspan when he wants to stretch out.