n the morning of May 11, Zhou Haixiang updated his WeChat Moments: “Crane No. 419 has been missing for 13 hours.”
As an ornithologist and head of the Ecological Environment Research Institute at Shenyang Ligong University, Northeast China’s Liaoning Province, Zhou had spent sleepless nights in search of the disabled crane, which was abandoned by its construction - the name for a group of cranes - after it left Poyang Lake in East China’s Jiangxi Province. Since early April, the female crane had been making the annual spring migration to Siberia - a journey of 5,000 kilometers - all alone.
Zhou and other volunteers often wade through wetlands and wilderness to monitor the health of white cranes, also known as Siberian cranes, and their migration routes using tracking devices in the hopes of protecting the endangered species from dangers such as poachers, pollution, food shortages and shrinking habitats.
There are about 4,000 white cranes worldwide, which are listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In the spring of 2018, Zhou saw No. 419 for the first time as he struggled to stand up on the bank of Liaohe River in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. When Zhou approached, he found another adult crane and chick dead nearby. No. 419 was foaming at the mouth - a symptom of poisoning. Zhou also noticed a crane injured by shotgun blast. It had broken feet and a bleeding right wing. Volunteers nicknamed it “Gun Survivor.”
It had been a tough year for white cranes. Climate change was warming their breeding grounds in the Arctic, resulting in a higher mortality rate of chicks. Zhou observed that among the 1,800 white cranes that stopped to rest at the Liaohe River, 2 percent were chicks, fewer than the normal 8 percent.
Each year, white cranes fly to Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, in autumn and back to Siberia in spring. Along the way, they stop in the wetlands of northeastern China. In 2005, Zhou discovered that white cranes stop at the Huanzidong Wetlands, a fact he said many locals were unaware of.
“People would come to the wetlands to poison wild geese but white cranes were often poisoned as well,” Zhou told our reporter. “Poachers would take away these big birds and sell them at the market. Local villagers also took the dead cranes sometimes.”
Zhou started a white crane protection campaign at the Huanzidong Wetlands. He printed his phone number on calendars and leaflets and gave them to local residents. His efforts paid off as more locals brought injured cranes to the Shenyang Wildlife Rescue Center.
“Poaching has decreased at the Huanzidong Wetlands with only sporadic cases,” he said. When he first spotted No. 419, Zhou said he found corn kernels soaked in poison nearby. Zhou blindfolded the two injured cranes, injected an antidote and bandaged them to stop the bleeding. After days of treatment at the rescue center, the two cranes were set free with satellite trackers on their feet.
“The trackers update their positions, body temperatures and activities each hour to help us learn more about their migratory patterns and how to intervene when danger arises,” said Zhou Minghui, head of the Hunan Global Messenger Technology Company, the manufacturer of the trackers.
On April 8, 2020, No. 419 began her migration north from Poyang Lake. Tracking data showed she was covering shorter distances by the day, going from 100 to several kilometers. On May 1, wildlife protection volunteer Liu Li found her at a small lake in the city of Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. “She was in a bad state and very dirty,” Liu said.
The next day, Zhou Haixiang headed to Tongliao. He observed the crane’s sleeping and eating habits and interaction with other animals. On her way to search for food, the crane fell to the ground several times from fatigue. Zhou told our reporter that the crane took two weeks to arrive in Tongliao, a trip that normally takes three days.
Zhou explained that their migration path is dangerous, especially in the densely populated areas of Southern China. Once alone or injured, cranes face life-or-death situations. Zhou started a chat group on WeChat where dozens of volunteers nationwide exchange the latest updates about crane migrations.
On November 29, 2018, “Gun Survivor” deviated from its migration route and stopped at a pond between Henan and Anhui provinces. Before landing, the crane circled at an altitude of 50 meters as it searched for a place to land.
“The area is full of farms and people. It would be a last choice for the crane to land,” Zhou said. After pinpointing its location, Zhou called local police for help. The police found that “Gun Survivor” was traveling with six companions.
With 100 kilometers left before their destination, Poyang Lake, the group deviated off its course again. On December 5, it arrived at a small reservoir behind a middle school in Qingshi County, Hubei Province and stayed there for 11 days.
“They are very close to a village. They would never land at a place like that if they were in good condition,” volunteer Li Zhenwen of Wuhan told NewsChina.
Qingshi County is more than 1,000 kilometers from Poyang Lake. In early 2019, Zhou traveled to important landing sites along the changing migration routes of white cranes. Zhou said there are fewer places for white cranes to land.
“We needed to find some proper places for cranes to rest,” Zhou said.
No. 419 provided a solution. Data showed the bird had flown along the east coast to Shijiu Lake, Jiangsu Province and stayed there for 13 days. White cranes had never been sighted at the lake before.
“Shijiu Lake could possibly become a new landing site and even wintering location for white cranes,” he said. Covering more than 207 square kilometers, Shijiu Lake connects to the Yangtze River. Environmental inspectors banned fishing here years ago, and Zhou saw abandoned nets piled on the banks.
More than 98 percent of the white crane population spend their winters on Poyang Lake. “It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket. If Poyang Lake is damaged, white cranes could go extinct,” said Jia Yifei, a post-doctoral researcher with the School of Nature Conservation, Beijing Forestry University.
In January 2019, Zhou Haixiang and his daughter Xueting left Shenyang for Poyang Lake to inspect the habitats of white cranes. White cranes like to eat the stems of water plants such as eelgrass, sedges and water chestnut. However in recent years, birds have resorted to feeding on the rice and lotus root of encroaching farms.
Zhou said Poyang Lake is abundant in fish and shrimp in summer and in winter. The lake’s mudflats and over 100 connected lakes are the perfect habitats for water birds such as white cranes.
“There are a number of lakes that used to connect to the Yangtze River and we’ve found evidence of white crane activity in many places,” he said. “Nowadays, most of the lakes are separated by dams and sluice gates.”
Poyang Lake is seeing more droughts than previously recorded, which have affected irrigation and water levels. To address these issues, Jiangxi provincial government announced in November 2016 its plans for a 13 billion-yuan (US$1.8b) water conservancy project on the lake.
The announcement drew mixed responses among experts. Debate sparked once again on March 24, 2020 when Jiangxi government said it would speed up construction of the project. In a public letter, Zhou wrote: “The project is highly likely to ruin the most important habitat for migratory water birds in China and even in the world.”
On May 11, volunteers noticed No. 419’s tracking device had not shown any movement for days. Zhou asked volunteers in Tongliao to check it out. They found the crane was still alive and well in Tongliao. On May 12, Zhou was happy to learn that “Gun Survivor” had arrived safe and sound in Yakutia, Siberia.
That afternoon, No. 419 flew to the Tumuji National Nature Reserve, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Zhou said the reserve is the only area where she does not need to rely on farms for food since leaving the Huanzidong Wetlands. It took No. 419 a total of 35 days to fly from Poyang Lake to Tumuji, a distance of roughly 2,000 kilometers.
“She’s still more than 3,000 kilometers away from Siberia,” Zhou said. “She will fly north alone without the help of volunteers.”