since 1986

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Black-Necked Crane

A CERS project since 1988

Traditionally Chinese considered the crane a sign of longevity, happiness and a stable relationship. Tibetans also hold the crane in revere, as it was this bird that held the clue to the identity of the infant 7th Dalai Lama, the reincarnation of the 6th. There are 15 species of cranes in the world and China supports 8 of them, with the Black-necked Crane and the Red-Crown Crane among the most rare and endangered.

In 1988, while exploring the eastern part of the Tibetan plateau in Marqu of Gansu, How Man Wong and Dr. Bill Bleisch first came upon a pair of Black-necked Cranes (BNC) at a distance. Their high pitch calls were not only a sound of alarm given whenever their most threatening predators, humans, were near, but also represented the state of affairs of this stately bird. A census taken during that period listed the bird as highly endangered, with less than 800 remaining in the wild, most of them in China.

That same winter, How Man went to Guizhou’s Caohai, a lake to which the cranes migrated to spend their winters. The habitat was under a lot of pressure as many farming communities surrounded the entire lake. Soon CERS’s attention was expanded to include wintering sites at Napahai in northwestern Yunnan as well as at various sites in northeastern Yunnan. Observations quickly turned into research and conservation projects aimed at educating the locals about the importance of the Black-necked Cranes.

By 1991 CERS began supporting study on the BNC at its summer mating and breeding grounds at the Arjin Mountain Nature Reserve. Study of such nesting grounds gradually expanded to include observations at other important sites in northwestern Gansu, southern Qinghai and northern Sichuan Provinces. During later years, our scientists also made observations of these cranes in western and northern Tibet, covering the entire range of the Black-necked Cranes.

Our team discovered the northernmost limit of the range of BNC at Yanqiwan of Gansu, and its southernmost limit at Xundian of Yunnan. Several academic papers, magazine articles, and an entire book on the BNC were published, and films were made; all part of an educational campaign to protect the cranes.

BNC normally migrate from summer breeding grounds in the north to wintering grounds in the south. Occasionally, chicks hatched too late in the season are not able to make the long migration flight and are left behind as ‘orphans.’ In the past, such late season hatching at times resulted from the old tradition of people collecting eggs from crane’s nest, thus necessitating the parent cranes to lay two more eggs late in the season, which are thus hatched out of season. CERS has adopted one such orphan, and our associates at the Arjin Mountain National Nature Reserve raised it for a year. The following year, release was unsuccessful because the bird had imprinted on humans. This crane finally made the Xinjiang Zoo its home.

Twenty years onward, CERS procured permits for the capture of five BNCs in order to affix satellite tracking devices on them for research purposes. This program allowed our scientists to track the birds in the wild so as to better understand the daily activities of the cranes and also their migration route from wintering ground to breeding ground. Today, the protection of the Black-necked Crane is well ensured and an estimate in 2012 put the global population at a much healthier numbers of over 10,000 cranes.

How Man first visited the Red-Crown Crane reserve in Heilongjiang in 1983. More recently, as a corollary to study of the Black-necked Crane, he has been making yearly visits to Hokkaido in northern Japan since 2010. There, he can observe and photograph the Red-Crowned Crane, sometimes known as the Japanese Crane, as well as other wildlife species, including the spectacular Steller’s Sea Eagle, the White-tailed Sea Eagle, Snowy Owl, Red Fox and Sika Deer.

The cranes of Hokkaido spend the winter there and migrate during the summer to breeding grounds in Korea and northern China. Hunted down to fewer than 100 birds less than a hundred years ago, successful conservation measures implemented in Japan over the last 50 years have provided safe refuge for the Red-Crowned Crane. Japan has created such ideal habitat that many cranes now stay in Hokkaido year round.