Jim Harris – Decades of Dedication

“At every dinner and meeting, Jim’s infectious laugh reverberates across the room and melts cultural differences, everyone is accepted and feels accepted because of his joy.” Sammy King, Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, USGS

On the occasion of his retirement from the International Crane Foundation, I find myself reflecting on my long friendship with Jim Harris. Jim has been a close friend these many years, and our organization has greatly benefited from his unwavering dedication and leadership. In 1977, Co-Founder Ron Sauey first invited then free-lance journalist Jim Harris to write about Siberian Cranes. Little did we know at the time that Jim would be inextricably involved in the welfare of these magnificent birds in the ensuing decades.

In 1984, Jim began working with us full time as the Director of Public Education, one of several titles he held over the next 30 years. His clear thinking and excellent writing skills landed our first major grants from the government, a pattern repeated for the rest of his career. To date, Jim’s skillful grant writing has secured over $15 million for crane conservation. In 1987, Jim began working in China when we cosponsored an International Crane Workshop at Zhalong Nature Reserve. Over 200 “craniacs” from 24 nations met to work on conservation issues. Jim organized the speakers, edited the proceedings, and met his future wife, Dr. Su Liying. By 2000, I had been president for 27 years, and it was time for a change. I stepped down as president but continued working to help the organization grow. Jim took over the reins and was our leader for the next five years before moving to China with his family to head our program in Northeast Asia.

“Jim Harris is famous in China for his successful work in crane conservation. He helped organize many important projects, and his experience has helped save the cranes of China from extinction. Jim is my old friend. I learned a lot from him.” ~ Zhengwang Zhang

China is a vast country, home to over a billion people and five species of threatened cranes. With the help of our own Dr. Li Fengshan, Jim’s wife Dr. Su Liying, and many Chinese colleagues, Jim spearheaded two remarkable projects concerning human values and wetland management that demonstrated what could be done in other areas. At Cao Hai Nature Reserve, Black-necked Cranes faced intense pressure from human exploitation of the reserve. Jim wanted to involve impoverished farmers in conservation by implementing a micro-lending program to develop new and more sustainable enhancements to livelihoods. He listened to the farmers and saw that co-existence could only happen by looking at conservation through the eyes of the farmers. It worked! The families accepting grants stopped reclaiming wetlands and designed income-producing activities that were compatible with conservation. Both the people and the cranes prospered over the years. Crane numbers increased from 200 to over 1,000.

Jim Harris participating in a migration exercise at a nature camp in Xianghai, China

At Momoge Nature Reserve, with advice from top hydrologists in China and the U.S., Jim and his colleagues developed a water management scheme to simulate the annual ebb and flow of the floodplain creating an abundance of food for the majority of the world’s Siberian Cranes during their long migrations. Their numbers increased from just over 1,000 to more than 4,000 today. Jim’s genius is a blend of sensitivity to the needs of people and to the needs of wildlife.

As Chair of the IUCN Crane Specialist Group, Jim’s vision for cranes and their landscapes has always been global in scale. He has adeptly integrated the expertise and passion of 350 members in over 50 countries. He led workshops and produced publications changing the course of how we address complex crane challenges such as agricultural land use and climate change. His contributions are culminating later this year with the publication of the much-anticipated Crane Conservation Strategy.

Jim Harris with wife Su Liying and their son Steven.

I could write for days about all the projects Jim has launched or helped around the world. He is a tireless worker and truly devoted to conservation and his family. A colleague Sammy King, who has worked in the field with Jim recently wrote about Jim’s deep commitment, “Jim would drop us off after an exhausting day of work only to go back to continue working on grant proposals or project ideas. Yet each morning, he always greeted us with the same smile and enthusiasm. In conservation, we are all dedicated to natural resources, but we occasionally cross paths with a few people who have sacrificed so much more. Jim is one of these people. Jim exudes passion for people and cranes and we are all the better for it.”

Thank you for decades of dedication Jim, and for your unfailing friendship to me and so many others around the world.

Editor’s note: A generous board member, who wishes to ensure that Jim’s good work continues, has recently granted the International Crane Foundation $175,000 per year, renewable for the next two years. This grant will help us meet the conservation challenges of working in China by increasing staff capacity — supporting our new China Program Director, Program Assistant and Ecologist positions. The donor praised Jim’s hard work and dedication
and cited them as the inspiration for his gift.

Story submitted by George Archibald, Co-founder and Senior Conservationist. Click here to learn more about our work in East Asia.