Siberian Cranes Engender Cornell Friendships

Photos from top to bottom: Ted, Mongolian guide Puujee Tsolmonjav, and George; Amur Falcon; Palla’s Sandgrouse; Saker Falcon with two hatchlings. Photos by Puujee Tsolmonjav

By George Archibald, ICF Co-founder, and Theodore L Eliot Jr, ICF Member

Our friendship began in the spring of 1977 when Ted, then US Ambassador to Afghanistan, helped Ron Sauey, co-founder with George of the International Crane Foundation (ICF), find the stopping point in Afghanistan of a flock of Siberian Cranes migrating from northern India to northern Siberia.  (This was described in an article written by Ted and published in Living Bird’s Summer, 2002 issue. That flock has since been extirpated from shooting along the long migration route across seven nations.) The friendship has been renewed many times since 1977, most recently when George discovered a Siberian Crane and told Ted where to find it at the Gun Gaalut Reserve east of Ulaanbaater in June, 2012.  We met at our ger (yurt) camp on the first night of George’s trip to eastern Mongolia and the last night of a two-week trip Ted was taking in the same area where he had not yet found any Siberian Cranes.

Both of us have had close relationships with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, especially George, who did his doctorate at Cornell and maintained a study group of 56 cranes of eight species at the Lab from 1968-71. Ted was for six years a member of the Lab’s Administrative Board. He was visiting Mongolia as a member of the Board of The Asia Foundation (TAF), and his visit was planned with the assistance of Sheldon Severinghaus, an ornithologist who received his PhD from Cornell in 1977 and was the first Asia Foundation representative in Mongolia from 1990 to 1998.

This was for each of us our first trip to Mongolia where 6 of the 15 species of cranes in the world can be seen.  Demoiselles, the smallest of cranes, are more grassland than wetland birds and are abundant across Mongolia. The southern border of the breeding range of the Eurasian Crane, a species that numbers in the hundreds of thousands in the taiga zone from Europe to eastern Russia, extends into northern Mongolia. Eastern Mongolia  also touches the westernmost portion of the range of the Red-crowned Cranes, the second rarest of cranes, numbering fewer than 3000.

Low numbers of non-breeding Hooded and Siberian Cranes spend the summer in northeastern Mongolia in and near wetlands that provide breeding habitat for the endangered White-naped Cranes that perhaps number fewer than 6000 in northeast Asia. For birders, northeast Mongolia  and neighboring areas of Russia and China, provide the greatest diversity of crane species in the world.

We had the same itinerary, one week apart, driving in sturdy four-wheel drive vehicles from Ulaanbaatar (George) and Choibalsan (Ted) to the northeastern corner of the country, on rough dirt roads through gloriously green steppe country with fast flowing rivers and through valleys with pine-covered mountains on either side.  Both of us saw five species of cranes, missing only the Red-crowned.

These are times of momentous change for the Mongolian people.  Huge deposits of coal, copper, gold and other minerals are attracting investment and exploitation by foreign mining companies, notably Chinese.  Money is pouring into the country, bringing with it corruption, which challenges democratic political institutions.  It also has tempted thousands of traditional herders to move to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, leaving their grazing lands unattended.  Environmental damage from open-pit mining is growing, including threats to wildlife habitat and to water tables. Mongolian and international environmental organizations are working hard to help Mongolians rise to their challenges.  And some of the mining companies, under pressure from Mongolians trying to minimize the damage, are responding.  Among the engaged international organizations are The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, TAF and ICF.

Photos from top to bottom: Hooded and Demoiselle Cranes; Siberian Crane; White-naped Crane; Relict Gulls; White-naped Crane. Photos by Puujee Tsolmonjav

Mongolia’s leading ornithologist, Dr. Natsagdorjin Tseveenmyadag, and the founder and director of a private organization, the Wildlife Research and Conservation Center of Mongolia, Mr. and soon-to-de Dr. Nyambayar Batbayar, traveled with George and 15 enthusiastic members of ICF.   After a long visit to ICF in 1991, Tseveen did his doctoral research on the cranes of Mongolia. Nyamba is near completion of his doctoral studies at Oklahoma State University.  His research concerns Bar-headed Geese that breed in western Mongolia and that winter in India following migration over the Himalayas.  Both researchers are now hoping to embark on a major Crane Project in Mongolia.

China is the southern neighbor of Mongolia and provides a home for many of Mongolia’s cranes in winter.  Since 1979, ICF has worked with colleagues in China on the study and conservation of endangered cranes. This research includes the second rarest of cranes, the Red-crowned Crane that breeds in northeast China, and the most endangered of the world’s cranes, the Siberian Crane that breed in the arctic of eastern Russia and winter at Poyang Lake on the floodplain of the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Almost all of the world’s 4000-plus Siberian Cranes winter at Poyang in company with more than 1000 White-naped Cranes, whose breeding range overlaps with the Red-crowned Crane but extend into the wetlands of northeastern Mongolia.

When Poyang Lake was discovered to be an important wintering area for cranes in the early 1980s, there were perhaps fewer than 1500 Siberian Cranes and perhaps more than 3000 White-naped.  The former, benefiting from vast expanses of tundra for breeding, have increased, while the White-naped Cranes have declined by perhaps more than fifty percent, perhaps as a consequence of the prolonged drought across the western portion of their breeding range.  And now there are grave concerns that water development projects in China will alter the fragile hydrology of Poyang Lake to the detriment of the cranes.   The massive Three Gorges Dam, upstream on the Yangtze from Poyang, has reduced downstream flow. There are hundreds of  dams across the five smaller tributary rivers that flow into Poyang. And plans are debated about a proposed dam across the outflow of Poyang Lake to maintain higher water levels throughout the winter – to the detriment of the shallow wetlands where the cranes feed in winter.  China and Mongolia are linked through the dependence of White-naped Cranes, on wetlands in both nations.  We hope to join forces with the other conservation organizations in helping the two nations collaborate to protect these vital wetlands.

In December of  2012, ICF and the governments of China and South Korea, are sponsoring a workshop on cranes in China to include participants from the five range nations of the endangered cranes in northeast Asia.  Tseveen and Nyamba hope to attend the workshop, following which George hopes to spend one week with them and Chinese colleagues at Poyang Lake to experience the cranes and to discuss plans for collaborative research.  By conserving the breeding habitat of White-naped Cranes in Mongolia, breeding habitat for Demoiselle and Eurasian cranes is likewise protected, as well as wetlands where low numbers of  non-breeding  Hooded and Siberian Cranes spend the summer.

TAF has a broad-ranging program in support of Mongolian environmental organizations.  This program has become increasingly important as a result of the growing number of mining operations in the country, all of which include threats to the environment including bird habitat.  Among the Mongolian partners being assisted by TAF are the  Mongolian Nature Protection Coalition, the National Association of Tuul River Protection, the Onon Ulz River Movement and the National University of Mongolia’s Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology.  TAF has also partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in establishing a regional environmental learning center in the Onon River Basin.  Ted’s group traveled with a Mongolian birder, Puujee Tsolmanjov, who is an environmental consultant to one of the mining operations.

The thirty-five years of friendship between Ted and George, which began by striving to help the Siberian Cranes in Afghanistan, now continues as we join forces with Mongolian colleagues to  help maintain safe havens where the calls and dances of cranes  will continue to color gorgeous green landscapes under ever so blue and wide skies.  We salute all those, especially Mongolians, who value the natural  resources of this beautiful country and are working hard to preserve all of them,  including those most graceful of all bird families, cranes.