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The Crane Mutiny

Siberian cranes have seen a huge population rebound in Poyang Lake, where they overwinter. But lack of natural food sources means they are dependent on human assistance, bringing them into conflict with farmers and destroying livelihoods

By Wang Yan Updated Aug.1

Siberian cranes forage in Zhonghu Lake, a few hundred meters from Tongxing Village, Wucheng, Jiangxi Province, April 9, 2023 (Photo by Wang Xiaolong)

In an early afternoon in mid-April, ranger Wang Xiaolong tramped to the Ganjiang River bank near Wucheng preservation station of Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve in Jiangxi Province. He pointed to an inlet in the distance, where through a telescope, the reporter saw dozens of Siberian cranes perched in the water some two to three kilometers away, probing for submerged food.  

Wang, 58, who works at the station, said the group of cranes was among the last to leave for their 5,000-kilometer migration to breed in Yakutia, Siberia. Ten days later on April 23, at around 10am, Wang said a group of over 60 birds took off, swirled over his head and flew north. “It was amazing today when I stood by the lake. The cranes flew toward me, circling over my head slowly. It seems like they were reluctant to leave for the north,” Wang said.  

As one of the world’s major wintering grounds for migratory birds, Poyang Lake, covering an area of over 5,000 square kilometers, receives around 98 percent of the global population of Siberian cranes each year. 

Overwinter Habitat 
Poyang Lake is located in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. It is the largest freshwater lake in China and a seasonal lake with fluctuating water levels. Apart from inflows from five major upstream rivers, it is also affected by the Yangtze River. Part of the Poyang Nature Reserve of 22,400 hectares was designated as a Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Site) in July 1992. In 2020, Nanji Wetland of 33,300 hectares in the southern part of Poyang Lake was listed as a Ramsar Site.  

The water level fluctuates significantly between the wet and dry seasons, with the total surface water coverage varying between 40 and 99 percent. When the water level drops, a variety of ecosystems emerge including meadows and mudflats, creating important habitats for waterbirds as either a stopover or wintering place.  

The wetland ecosystem of Poyang Lake attracts over 700,000 migratory birds to overwinter, the largest in Asia and the most important wintering ground along the East Asia-Australia migratory flyway. According to material provided by Jiangxi Provincial Department of Forestry (JPDF), about 98 percent of Siberian cranes, over 80 percent of Oriental white storks and more than 70 percent of White-naped cranes winter here. The lake is the world’s most important wintering ground for the largest swan goose and Tundra swan populations. More than 10 species of migrating plovers and snipes replenish their food in the region.  

For decades, sand dredging, overfishing, wetland reclamation for farming, water diversion for agriculture and cattle herding and upstream dams resulted in habitat losses for migratory birds and other wild animals. 

Population Revival 
The Siberian crane is an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Critically Endangered species under first-class state protection in China. The IUCN estimates there are 3,500-4,000 individuals. According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), it has two regional population groups. The western/central population winters in Iran and breeds in the southern parts of the Ob River in Russia. Since the 1960s, the population of the species has decreased dramatically due to habitat loss and deteriorating environments. Previously, cranes of this population used to winter in Bharatpur, Rajasthan in India where they were last sighted in 2001. For years, the last surviving crane of this population, a male named Omid, made an annual winter migration to Iran after his mate died, until early 2023, when a female companion was transported from Belgium to accompany him, according to Iranian media. The pair left for the spring migration together.  

The eastern population breeds in northeastern Siberia and migrates from the Yakutian tundra of Russia across eastern China to Poyang Lake. After protection measures in China, including bans on hunting, were instituted, the population has increased. Yu Changhao, director of Jiangxi Forestry’s wetland and grassland division, told the reporter that the total population increased from less than 100 in the 1980s to over 5,600. In 2019, Jiangxi designated the Siberian crane its provincial bird.  

During the same period, ranger Wang Xiaolong said that recorded types of birds at Poyang Lake increased drastically, from 150 in the 1980s to over 460 species today, making Poyang Lake one of the top 10 global bird-watching destinations.  

Before the 1980s, Poyang locals hunted cranes. “In the 1950s and 60s, we had a special division in the aquatic department in Wucheng with around 1,000 locals who hunted, sold and exported birds, Wang said. “They wore white camouflage and took the boat deep into the lake to hunt for birds at night.”  

Although the reserve was established in the 1980s and hunting protected species has been illegal since the late 1980s, poaching was not contained until the early 2000s. In an article in journal China Bird Watch in January 2023, Jim Harkness, China Chief representative for the National Geographic Society, wrote of his encounter with poachers in Wucheng in 1988, where he saw locals setting nets to trap ducks and geese, which could also catch protected species like cranes.  

Historically, many villagers in Wucheng made their livelihood through fishing on Poyang Lake. In late 2019 when the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs instituted a 10-year ban on fishing in the Yangtze River catchment, fishers were forced to quit, their boats taken away. A dry season ban on cattle herding in pastoral areas inside the lake area was also imposed. In Wucheng, Wang said there had been around 10,000 cattle. “The lake area provides natural pastureland for animal husbandry, but after the herding ban, all the cattle belonging to villagers was sold,” he said.  

The increased protection efforts have increased the numbers of water birds and fish resources. “Now people realize the importance of wildlife protection, they stopped bird hunting and voluntarily protect migratory birds,” Wang said. “People consider Siberian cranes are an auspicious symbol.”  

“According to our most recent survey including ground count and observations from December 2021 to February 2022 in Jiangxi, Shandong, Hunan, Hubei and Anhui provinces, where Siberian cranes winter, the population of the species has reached 5,616, much more than 4,000, the number estimated by the IUCN. The new data suggests a population revival,” Guo Yumin, professor at the School of Ecology and Nature Conservation at the Beijing Forestry University, told NewsChina. The overwintering habitat in China is vital for the population revival of the species.  

Maria Vladimirtseva, a senior research fellow at Russia’s Kytalyk National Park, an area of 1.8 million hectares and the main breeding ground for about 70 percent of the world’s Siberian crane population, told NewsChina in an email that “the main reason for the relative well-being and growth of the eastern Siberian crane population was the effective conservation measures taken by our Chinese colleagues in the wintering area.”  

Apart from Siberian cranes, other migratory birds have seen population rebounds. According to statistics from Professor Guo, the population of the endangered Oriental white stork, a national first-class protected bird, increased from around 3,000 in the 1990s to over 15,000 in China now. The population of Hooded cranes doubled from 9,100 in 2002 to over 18,000. The population of the Black-necked crane, a rare species endemic to China, increased from 6,000 in 2000 to 17,500 in 2022.  

Apart from official conservation efforts, Guo posits the main reason is agricultural modernization and mechanization. “Developed agriculture leaves more leftover grain in fields, providing substantial amounts of food for wildlife, including birds,” Guo said. 

Feeding Shift 
There has been a significant increase in migratory birds, including thousands of Siberian cranes, searching for food in rice paddies and lotus ponds in the Poyang area.  

According to “Drivers of a habitat shift by critically endangered Siberian cranes: Evidence from long-term data,” a paper published in July 2020 in Ecology and Evolution, waterbirds are increasingly dependent on agricultural lands for food. There were large declines in Siberian crane numbers in Poyang Lake natural wetlands over several years, with the population fluctuating in the thousands, leading researchers to look elsewhere. They noticed the primary reason was the disappearance of Vallisneria tuber, the roots of the aquatic plant commonly known as vallis or eel grass. Professor Wang Wenjuan from Beijing Forestry University, who co-wrote the paper, told NewsChina that extreme weather, declining water quality, sand mining and other factors have resulted in the serious degradation of submerged plants in Poyang Lake. “Extreme climate fluctuations have become more and more frequent in recent years. High spring and summer water levels almost every year don’t allow sufficient light for the growth of submerged plants, resulting in the death of large areas of Vallisneria tubers,” she said.  

Professor Li Yankuo from the College of Life Sciences at Jiangxi Normal University pointed to other factors that limit the growth of subsurface plants, including the Three Gorges Dam upstream of Poyang Lake, which has caused changes in the lake’s hydrological regime. In his article “Modified hydrological regime from the Three Gorges Dam increases the risk of food shortages for wintering waterbirds in Poyang Lake” published in Global Ecology and Conservation in 2020, he wrote that the change has significant correlation with the autumn drought and summer floods in Poyang Lake, leading to decreased food abundance.  

This has caused the displacement of Siberian cranes to nearby farmland. Wuxing Reclamation Farm in Nanchang, capital city of Jiangxi, is a reclaimed area of rice paddies and lotus ponds to the south of Poyang Lake with many tenant farmers. According to Wang Wenjuan’s study, the farm supported an average of 47 cranes in the winters of 2010-2014, but the numbers increased to 297 in 2015 and 1,300 in 2016. In Yugan, a county to the south of Poyang Lake, cranes began showing up a few years ago. Lei Xiaoyong, who works at Yugan County Forestry Bureau, told NewsChina that in 2020, the number reached a record high of 2,800 in Chaqizhou, which is now a popular bird-watching site.  

“It’s likely that the tuber collapse in the winters of 2015-2016 was a major driver for Siberian cranes to move from natural wetlands to agricultural habitats. Similarly, food shortages are thought to be the main cause of other crane, goose and swan populations moving from natural wetlands to agricultural habitats,” Wang Wenjuan said.  

After significant numbers of cranes started feeding in lotus ponds on Wuxing Reclamation Farm and some 300 individuals used it throughout the winter in 2016, the local government decided to establish Wuxing Siberian Crane Sanctuary, an area of over 70 hectares, to feed the cranes. In Chaqizhou, some 70 hectares of rice paddies have been set aside for Siberian cranes since 2019.  

Zhou Haiyan, a photographer and head of Wuxing Siberian crane sanctuary, told NewsChina that some 2,000 Siberian cranes had come during the 2022-2023 winter to feed on lotus roots. “They’re not even afraid of people, so we can easily photograph them from a few meters away,” Zhou said.  

In 2022, an unusually severe drought hit the Yangtze River Basin and Poyang Lake during the spring and summer, which worsened natural food shortages for waterbirds. Jiangxi provincial government set aside nine rice paddies totaling over 267 hectares and lotus ponds totaling 81 hectares for Siberian cranes during the winter. According to Yu Changhao from the JPDF, the government also purchased 15,000 kilograms of rice and corn.  

According to statistics from JPDF, Jiangxi received 326 million yuan (US$45.7m) from the central government between 2014 and March 2023 for wetland ecological compensation to purchase farmers’ harvests to feed cranes and subsidize farmers who suffer losses caused by migratory birds. Compensation coverage expanded from three counties in 2014 to 20 counties by 2021. This year, Yu said JPDF has applied for additional funds to cover the increased damage. 

Lotus Eaters 
However, even the increased agricultural resources are not enough for the influx of cranes and other waterbirds.  

In spring, Zhu Shoubing, 54, who farms and manages a local food company, should be harvesting lotus roots. But in mid-April, Zhu stood by his lotus ponds in Xiashatou Village, Nanchang, and pointed to his ravaged crops.  

“This year I lost almost all my crop from my 107 hectares of lotus roots after they were swarmed by migratory birds like Siberian cranes and swan geese,” Zhu told NewsChina. He hired six villagers to drive the thousands of birds away day and night, but they flew from one pond to another. “It was impossible to scare them off. I tried many ways including firecrackers and scarecrows. There were just too many.” It is not illegal to use methods like this, as long as the birds are unharmed.  

Xiong Kehua, deputy head of Xiashatou Village, said the number of migratory birds during the 2022-2023 winter was huge. “It’s a disaster. When they arrive in large numbers, they destroy farmland and eat newly planted seeds,” Xiong said, adding that the birds also trample crops which then rot away.  

“I used to feel proud I could contribute to conservation when I saw Siberian cranes coming to my ponds, but I never expected the number could suddenly increase from dozens to thousands overnight. I hope experts or government officials can help me avoid these huge losses in the future,” Zhu said. So far, Zhu has not received compensation. Yu Changhao from JPDF admitted the difficulty of paying compensation to those who are not included inside the preset annual compensation budget. While Zhu is replanting his ponds, he said he might give up entirely if it happens again this winter, a loss to him and the hundreds of people he employs.  

Others tell a similar story. Ma Dapao, who farms at Wuxing Reclamation Farm, told NewsChina that he incurred losses of over 1 million yuan (US$140,378) on his 87 hectares of lotus ponds after they were swamped by thousands of swans and cranes. His petition for compensation was unsuccessful. A farmer surnamed Zhang in Yugan County claimed each household endures a loss of around 20-30 percent of their rice crop due to bird damage. “Since 2019, there’s been a big increase in the number of birds coming to our farmland. We might have had around 100,000 in our neighborhood,” the farmer said. “We can’t poison or harm the birds, which are all protected, but we can’t stand by our paddy fields 24 hours a day to drive them away, so we farmers hope the government will boost our compensation.” 

Crop Damages 
According to a report by Jiangxi News Radio in late March, the loss of farmland this spring caused by migratory birds in Nanchang High-tech Zone alone has exceeded 8 million yuan (US$1.1m). However, the wetland ecological compensation funds issued by the central government only cover damaged farmland within five kilometers of the Poyang Lake wetland. Losses stretch far beyond this range. Jim Harkness wrote that as he visited Wucheng in December 2022, he learned that fish farmers had to spend much of their time at their ponds to drive away cormorants, egrets and herons that prey on fish.  

Zhou Haixiang, a retired teacher from the School of Environmental Engineering, Shenyang University of Technology, has found similar human-bird conflicts are prevalent in other provinces such as Hubei, Hunan and Anhui. His project tracked birds over five years by satellite. “We found that Siberian cranes searched for food and spent the night in the natural wetlands of the Poyang Lake area in the first two years [2019-2020], and then gradually spread outside. [Since then], agricultural fields have become the main refuges for Siberian cranes and many other birds,” Zhou told NewsChina.  

This shift accounts for the increase in the Siberian crane population, according to Wang Wenjuan, as they consume more food of better quality while exerting less energy to forage. 
Dr. Li Fengshan, former China Program Coordinator of the ICF said that the opinions of farmers should be taken into account in decision making. “Long term preservation requires soliciting local communities’ opinions and views,” Li told NewsChina. “Otherwise, farmers won’t want to actively cooperate, which is detrimental to the protection efforts.” Li noted that in the US state of Wisconsin, farmers suffering from damage caused by Sandhill cranes can apply for a license to hunt them as a preventative measure to save their crops.  

“We still lack a mechanism so farmers, conservationists and scientists can sit together to find a dynamic solution,” Lei Xiaoyong said. Farmers’ interests should not be sacrificed to wildlife conservation and compensation should be paid to farmers effectively rather than randomly. “Without compensation, human-wildlife conflicts will get worse,” Lei said.  

However, Professor Guo thinks the issue is overstated. Many conservationists NewsChina interviewed including Guo stated that some natural habitats have been encroached upon by humans, and they are in turn shifting to agricultural lands as a way to survive. If the overwintering area for Siberian cranes cannot provide enough energy from food for migrating cranes, they might not be able to travel to their breeding grounds, dying during the journey, or not have enough stored nutrition to breed successfully.  

“I believe humans should have the tolerance to live together with our wild friends as far as it doesn’t affect our health and our security. To allow Siberian cranes to eat farm residues is a way to compensate them for our former occupation of their habitats,” Guo said. As for the relationship between cranes and people, it depends on whether locals perceive the cranes as a threat or a favorable presence. Guo said some places, such as Dongying Wetland in the Yellow River Delta, are thinking of planting lotus roots to attract Siberian cranes.

Flocks of birds including Siberian cranes forage on rice paddies set aside for them, Chaqizhou, Jiangxi Province, January 18, 2022 (Photo by VCG)

Health Risks 
Changes in migration patterns and health risks are more profound concerns, experts said.  
While most Siberian cranes had left Poyang Lake for their breeding grounds by March 2023, hundreds delayed until April. In mid-April, Zhou Haiyan confirmed that over 100 had still not migrated. According to Maria Vladimirtseva, Siberian cranes usually reach their breeding ground in mid-May. “But this year, as colleagues from China told us, Siberian cranes waited at Poyang Lake longer than usual, so their arrival to the nesting grounds will probably be somewhat delayed,” she said.  

“It’s likely there are abnormalities happening. I suspect their unwillingness to leave might be because of sufficient food from artificial feeding,” Wang Wenjuan said. “The increased reliance of birds on agricultural wetlands raises a range of problems, including a decline in the ability of birds to adapt to their original natural ecosystem, and the potential risk of outbreak of diseases such as avian flu among the heavily concentrated groups of bird in a single area,” she said. Her recent study also found that Siberian cranes feeding in agricultural fields had higher abundance of pathogenic bacteria in their guts than those feeding in natural wetlands, which emphasizes the potential harm of agricultural feeding.  

Wang Wenjuan’s concerns are based on lessons drawn from similar cases among the once endangered Red-crowned crane on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Within half a century, the number swelled from about three dozen to about 1,900, mostly reliant on human feeding. “As artificial feeding began to ensure winter food for the cranes, their numbers increased,” Kunikazu Momose, chairman of the Red-Crowned Crane Conservancy in Hokkaido told NewsChina. This has caused them to be dependent on artificial feeding, losing their vigilance against people and damaging pastures and cultivated fields. In November 2022, one juvenile Red-crowned crane died of avian flu in Hokkaido, while about 1,500 Hooded cranes and White-naped cranes died of avian influenza in Izumi, Kagoshima Prefecture. “We were concerned about an outbreak on the Asian side after a case in Israel in the winter of 2021-22 in which as many as 8,000 Eurasian cranes died in a mass outbreak,” Momose said.  

ICF refused an interview request on the risk of an avian flu outbreak among Siberian cranes in Poyang Lake.  

There were attempts to disperse Red-crowned cranes to marshes and rivers. Professor Hiroyuki Masatomi from the Department of Animal Science at Hokkaido University said that to prevent agricultural damage, farmers tried methods such as “surrounding fields with colorful streamers and electric fences, setting off firecrackers on a regular basis, and even having people drive them away.” Authorities issued guidelines on measures that can be used, including drones and trained dogs.  

“Ecological preservation and species conservation are different,” said Zhou Haixiang. “Our first stage of conservation could be simply to increase the number of the protected species, but the second stage should focus on helping them live on their own in nature.”  

In Jiangxi, scientists and government agencies are looking at long-term solutions. “Setting aside lotus ponds or rice paddies for Siberian cranes are measures we take in an emergency, but now we want to restore the submerged plants and ecosystem of the natural wetlands,” Yu Changhao said, who admitted restoring the ecosystem on which the birds depend may take two decades. “We can’t predict the situation of human-migratory bird conflict next winter. There’s no single solution, so we need to develop comprehensive solutions.”  

Que Pinjia from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Population said that reviving endangered species is the short term goal for conservation initiatives, but in the long term, harmonious coexistence should be the main goal, and the impact on local communities should be considered.  

“Putting aside crops for Siberian cranes may not be the best solution, but at least for the moment, it is the optimal one. We couldn’t have ensured a stable population if we didn’t have these food sources in Wuxing and Chaqizhou,” Lei said. “For Jiangxi, which has invested a lot and made real efforts in reviving the population of this endangered species, it is a great success.”