Unique 30 year battle to save magnificent endangered cranes from extinction


By The Siberian Times reporter
17 April 2017

Behind the scenes at a remarkable 30 year survival experiment in the Far East of Russia.

This is a key moment for the one year old chicks. Picture: Khingansky Nature Reserve

Five young cranes – Gar, Tulungin, Neya, Harga and Aldekson – are pictured here being  released in the wild close to Lake Kleshinskoye.

This is a key moment for the one year old chicks, hatched and bred in captivity in a scheme to save two types of this majestic bird – the red-crowned or Japanese crane and white-naped crane.

They need to get familiar with the wild, and find appropriate company to fly south for wintering.

The next summer they will return, find couples and have their own chicks.

Khingansky Nature Reserve in Amur region has been running this programme for three decades .

Eggs are delivered here from zoos all over Russia and in the past from the US and France, too, before concerns over bird flu.

They are hatched from incubators.

Eggs are delivered here from zoos all over Russia and in the past from the US and France. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve

Hundreds of birds have been successfully released into the wild in that time yet due to changing habitats the species remains at risk.

Nikolai Balan, called a zoo engineer at the reserve’s reintroduction station said:  ‘We had successfully worked with Americans for 17 years.

‘It was done to strengthen blood of local cranes …. this way birds become stronger.

‘We managed to do that, the population at the reserve became bigger and there are now less family ties.

‘However, we are not working with America and France nowadays, due to the outbreak of bird flu.

‘I wouldn’t be able to provide you with the exact number that local crane population has grown by.

‘But when I arrived here it was very rare to see this bird in the wild, whereas now such encounters occur much  more often.’

Red-crowned cranes are named after rivers in Amur region, white-naped (Daur) cranes after the heroes of Greek myths.  Newborns are put in a brooder, a nursery for chicks, and 10 days later – tagged with a ring – they go  outdoors.

During the first year, the little cranes are carefully observed by researchers, although the conditions they are kept at are as close to the wild as possible so that chicks don’t get used to having humans around.

They are weighed, and taken to the lake. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve

Yet it’s certainly true that the people caring for them get enormously attached to ‘their’ birds.

Nadezhda Kuznetsova, senior zoo engineer, admitted: ‘At first we were upset when we were releasing them, sad and even crying.

‘But then, after giving it some thought, we realised this was a happy event for them.

‘They are free. So we started to be happy for them.’

The crane chicks spend their first spring at facilities around the reserve’s office building.

In summer they are released to Lake Kleshinskoye where their older peers live.

That’s where chicks learn to hunt for frogs, fish and clams, pick up roots of plants, fly and communicate.

At this time they are under 24-hour surveillance.

For winter, the young chicks are returned to spacious aviaries in the reserve.

The next spring they are finally released to the wild.

On the big day, the birds are wrapped in special transportation wraps designed and sewed by employees of the reserve. They are weighed, and taken to the lake where the most emotional moment occurs: birds are unwrapped, they stand up and unfold their wings.

Even very young birds are gracious and elegant.

All the cranes arrive without injuries and 30 minutes after they are released, they already walk around looking for food in the grass.

All the cranes arrive without injuries and 30 minutes after they are released, they already walk around looking for food in the grass. Pictures: Khingansky Nature Reserve

They already know the territory and observers, but in about one week they will shun the people who looked after them for a year.

Nadezhda Kuznetsova said: ‘We observe them carefully for about a week to make sure the chicks are adapt to the environment and can care for themselves.

‘Then observation will be loosened but won’t disappear – we need to know that our cranes successfully left for wintering.

‘We will take those who remain here. This normally happens if a bird gets injured.

‘Now there are about 19 red-crowned  and white-naped cranes living at the premises.

‘These are birds who got injured and couldn’t adapt to the wild, as well as parent couples nesting.’

Those who leave will be met by ornithologists in Japan, Korea and China.

They notify Khingansky Nature Reserve of the numbers of birds  that arrived.

Normally, ornithologists spot about 17% white-naped  and 24%  red crowned cranes from Amur region.

Khingansky Nature Reserve waits for the cranes to return in spring.

Last year ‘graduates’ Stilba and Ergel have already arrived to Lake Kleshinskoye, and live with with several couples of wild Japanese cranes.


Russian Conservationists Launch Survey of Elusive Snow Leopard


SAYLYUGEMSKY NATIONAL PARK, Russia — If you fly to the most remote corner of Siberia, drive for nine hours, cross another 60 miles of ice and hills in a sturdy Soviet jeep and climb a mountain, you just may see a snow leopard. Or maybe its footprint.

The endangered snow leopard is one of the most elusive and understudied of all big cats on the planet.

But this may change, thanks to a pioneering survey launched last month that aims to compile an exact headcount of all snow leopards in Siberia, down to the last cub.

Scientists Discover New Way to Research Snow Leopard 2:31

It could be a crucial step in saving the felines, which are threatened by shrinking habitats, poachers’ snares and guns and Asian traditional medicine.

“All of us like cats, of course. But it’s not just a cat, it’s an indication of the health of an ecosystem,” said Dmitry Burenko, director of development at WWF Russia, speaking to NBC News in the Saylyugemsky National Park in the Altai mountains.

If that’s true, the ecosystem of Altai — a Russian republic in southern Siberia — is definitely in trouble.

Its arid, windswept ridges host a population of 200,000 people in an area the size of Indiana. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one million tourists flock here every year to ride horses, kayak or hike.

Image: Bianca, a female snow leopard
A female snow leopard at a zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Ilya Naymushin / Reuters

But between winter temperatures of minus 40 degrees, cutting winds and elevation of up to 14,000 feet, it’s an inhospitable place for humans — which is exactly how the snow leopard likes it.

“The leopard favors hard-to-reach areas,” said Alexander Karnaukhov, a leading expert with the World Wildlife Fund Russia.

The big cat is found in 12 countries but there are only an estimated 3,000-6,000 worldwide. The biggest populations are in China and Mongolia. Russia, the northernmost edge of the habitat, is thought to have no more than 60-70.

“No exhaustive surveys are held, and many countries exaggerate their numbers,” Karnaukhov said.

The Science of Poop

Conservationists have been complaining for years about the lack of reliable leopard numbers. Countries use different counting methodologies, including the counting of traces which are easy mixed up with lynx and wolverines, and the figures are never compatible.

The Russian method being tested in the Altai starts with careful computer modeling of potential habitats.

Image: Mountainous region of Altai, Russia
The farmer in this region of Altai told NBC News that he has seen a snow leopard prowling the ridges. Mitya Solovyov / NBC News

Rangers, who know area well, place cameras on game trails. This is far more dangerous than it sounds: The snow leopard prefers the tops of mountain ranges, from which it can see its prey — ibex and argali sheep.

An NBC News crew following a ranger to one camera location had to scramble 700 feet up a frozen mountain river where one misstep would send climbers sliding down to the steppe on the horizon.

The most important part is not pictures, but poop. Leopard excrement collected and placed into “zip bags” on game trails is analyzed for DNA that identifies not only individual leopards but their kinship.

The method is not entirely unique — it is being used in another form to track tigers in India — but Russian scientists hope to perfect it so that it can be used for all snow leopard surveys from China to Tajikistan.

“We’ll hold an international meeting on this method in May, and hope that other countries will adopt it,” WWF’s Karnaukhov said.

Ensnared Cats

Humans have been killing off snow leopards for a century, though not always deliberately.

Climate change affects some habitats and hunting remains a problem, though poaching is low in Russia, said Denis Malikov, deputy director of the Saylyugemsky National Park.

Leopards can also incur the wrath of sheep herders if the