This update is reprinted from the February 2015 issue of The ICF Bugle
Can you imagine seeing seven of the world’s 15 species of cranes in one morning? There is only one place on earth where this has ever happened, a most remarkable, and most threatened, place – the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the hostile Korean peninsula.
This past December, ICF Co-founder George Archibald and I guided a wonderful group of ICF Directors and other supporters across East Asia to visit three extraordinary places that are vital to the future of cranes, and so much more. We started our travels at Poyang Lake of China, winter home for almost the entire world population of critically endangered Siberian Cranes as well as large numbers of Oriental Storks, Swan Geese, and many other waterbird species. ICF’s Jim Harris, Li Fengshan, Jeb Barzen, James Burnham, and others, have been working for more than a quarter century to maintain natural water level fluctuations – the key to the lake’s rich biodiversity and immense productivity – as the lake basin undergoes transformative land use changes. We finished our tour in Japan with the spellbinding dances of Red-crowned Cranes – half the world population lives on the snowy fields of Hokkaido in northern Japan. It was here, more than 40 years ago, that George first studied cranes in the wild.
The middle part of our tour focused on the DMZ, one of the last strongholds for cranes and other wildlife on the Korean peninsula. Cheorwon Basin, part of the “Civilian Controlled Zone” of the DMZ, is renowned for its large concentrations of wintering Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes that feed on waste grain in agricultural fields– one of the very best places to see these two threatened species. Flocks 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 on one chilly morning last December, thanks to our Korean colleague Dr. Lee Kisup, our group had the amazing good fortune of observing Siberian, Eurasian, Demoiselle, and even one of our own Sandhill Cranes feeding among flocks of Red-crowned, White-naped, and Hooded Cranes. What a thrill!
The abundance of cranes that grace Cheorwon feed in the midst of one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Korean War. Many thousands died there, and haunting memories of the war are everywhere. Ice Cream Mountain is so named because it was bombed so heavily during the war that the land just “melted” to oblivion. Bloody Ridge and Pork Chop Hill loom just beyond. Nearly every piece of elevated land is cordoned off with barbed wire and mine field 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 tenuous 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 everywhere palpable, as the nearby Seoul metropolitan area and its 24 million inhabitants push northwards. Industrialization and commercial greenhouses are slated to replace the farm fields. North Korea likewise aspires to massive settlement of these lands when reunification is someday achieved. Our 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 land-use policies and practices that are compatible with the cranes and preserve the important memories held in this special place. The DMZ and other critical sites in East Asia are among our very highest priorities worldwide.
From these wondrous crane lands of East Asia to the spectacular concentration of Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska each springtime, our ICF tours explore some of the most amazing wildlife shows on earth (learn more about ICF tour opportunities). I look forward to the day when we can experience the winter gatherings of cranes together in a united and peaceful Korea.