Notes from the President: Cheorwon Basin Winter Refuge for Cranes in Korea

Wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes gather in the Cheorwon basin of South Korea.

Can you imagine seeing seven species of cranes in one morning?!? Today our group visited the remarkable Cheorwon basin of South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone that divides the Korean peninsula. Cheorwon is renowned for the large concentrations of wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes that feed on waste grain in this agricultural landscape – one of the very best places to see these two endangered species. Small groups of Hooded Cranes are regularly seen as they pass through on their way to wintering grounds in Japan. But Cheorwon also attracts a smattering of vagrant East Asian cranes that are not regular winter visitors to Korea, and this morning, thanks to our Korean colleague Dr. Li Kisup, we had the amazing good fortune of also observing Siberian, Eurasian, Demoiselle and even one of our own Sandhill Cranes on these same fields. What a thrill!  There is nowhere else on earth where this many cranes can be seen in one place – and few places are as important for crane conservation.

The abundant and diverse cranes that grace Cheorwon feed amidst the bloodiest battlefield of the Korean War. Hundreds of thousands died here, and haunting memories of the war loom everywhere. Ice Cream Mountain is so named because it was bombed so heavily during the war that the land just “melted” to oblivion. Nearly every piece of elevated land is cordoned off with barbed wire and “minefield” signs. And the eerie sounds of artillery fire and detonating bombs echo all day across the plains from nearby military bases that have remained on high alert for six decades of cease-fire.

Today Cheorwon faces a very challenging future, brought by the opportunities of peace rather than horrors of war. Development pressure is intense and palpable everywhere, as the nearby capital city Seoul and its 24 million people push northwards. Industrialization and commercial greenhouses are slated to replace these rice fields. North Korea likewise aspires to massive settlement of these lands when reunification is someday achieved. Our dedicated Korean colleagues are a passionate voice for their beloved cranes, and we are committed to helping them find a lasting conservation solution for Cheorwon through new alliances with those who own and farm these lands, and through land-use policies and practices that are good for the cranes and help preserve the important memories in this special place.

Story submitted by Rich Beilfuss, International Crane Foundation President & CEO. Click here to learn more about our work in East Asia.