And then there was one
~ the story of the Siberian Cranes
Siberian Crane, Bharatpur, Feb 1996; Image by P. M. Lad
I still remember my 1st (and last ) sighting of the Siberian Crane. It is a vivid and live picture – never dulled by the passage of time, and time has passed since that bright sunlit afternoon in December 1964, at age 10, when I saw a flock of exquisitely beautiful 'Karekhur's peacefully feeding on Masarovar Lake in Bharatpur in the company of an indulgent father.
My interest in birds started as early as I can remember, and that interest was encouraged by my parents as evidenced by the proud ownership of a pair of Swift Saratoga binoculars (imported and obtained with great difficulty) and a copy of Hugh Whistler's Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. On page 444 of Whistler's book, describing the Common Crane, is penciled 'White Siberian Crane – 36 adults + young, 27Dec 1965' in a child's scrawl. Whistler did not mention the Siberian Crane anywhere in his book. Even in 1928 it was a very rare bird in India, and not deemed important enough to find space in the 618 pages of his book.
They have been around for a million years on earth. Perhaps they were widespread across their breeding grounds in the arctic tundra of Russia before the advent of humans. Early records (pre-1950's) indicate that they were still to be found in pockets of Central Siberia like Yakutia and Krasnoyarsk till the 1980's. Indeed, according to Peter Pallas ( who 1st described the species ) the Asiatic White Crane was “observed throughout the whole of Siberia, being also found in Dauria, in China, and Japan” [18, p43] and their breeding area formerly extended between the Urals and Ob river south to the Ishim and Tobol rivers and east to the Kolyma region. Here, in the “vast morasses of Siberia, and every other place that lakes abound, penetrating far north into the boggy forests about the Ischin, Irtisch, and Oby” [18, p43] they lived in peace feeding on “rush seeds, bulbs, corms and even leaves of aquatic plants, in the cool waters where it spends it whole time” [13, p255].
y all accounts they mated for life and successfully raised a single chick nestled amidst still unmelted snow which harmonised perfectly with their snowy swan-like plumage [18, p39].
Come winter they travelled south to escape the onset of harsher conditions and the declining daylight hours. Their migration was long, in fact the longest by any crane species in the world. In the south lay the warm food-rich plains of the Indian subcontinent just across the unforgiving altitudes of the high Himalaya. Perhaps they were not as well-equipped as Bar-headed Geese to tackle oxygen-deficient high altitudes and found a way to skirt the high elevations. Or, perhaps, they needed some hospitable staging points. Whatever be the reason, they charted a route which took them over long stretches of populated areas and denied them the relative safe passage of the uninhabitable Himalayan ranges – a choice that would ultimately play a catastrophic role on their survival fortunes.
It is likely that they were never very numerous. Numbers have a way of contributing to species success, and a small pool has less ability to face the hazards of survival. Niche species are often hampered by their selective evolution in terms of food dependencies and habitat preferences. Small changes in the environment can trigger big collapses even with such long-lived (records indicate 80+years) species. Such may have been the case with the Sibes who have been under constant pressure from the demands of the growing human population in their migratory and wintering habitats. Inevitably they lost out in the survival race and their range and numbers started to dwindle well before we became aware of their plight. Even as early as 1863, T.C. Jerdon writing in 'The Birds of India' noted them as “rare winter visitant to several parts of North-Western India”  . It appears that Jerdon had never even seen one by the time he published his book and A.O. Hume is quoted in 1867 as saying that “Sixteen years have now elapsed since I first shot one in Ladakh. Years passed away and I never once met with a single specimen” [12, p41]. By the mid 1980's the Siberian Cranes breeding population had shrunk to just two pockets. The Western Kunovat Population in the river basins of the Ob, Konda and Sossva and the much larger Eastern Kytalyk Population in Yakutia between the Yana and the Alazeya rivers, with almost no presence across the rest of its large historical range.
Today a mere 3700 odd Sibes survive in the Eastern Population and there is possibly just one adult left of the Western Population. Valiant efforts to protect the last remaining Siberian Cranes is underway and many agencies are involved. This will, perhaps, give some breathing time to the birds in the Eastern Population. The Western birds are doomed and were doomed for sometime despite our awareness of their dark fate.
But why is that the case? Surely we could have provided some protection to such beautiful and symbolic birds when we knew that they were threatened with extinction? The sad story is that we knew, but could do precious little about it because it was beyond our powers to protect the last few from us!!!
These attractive birds, sometimes called the 'The Snow Wreath' or ‘The Lily of Birds’, charted their migration path much before the advent of humans. Those that lived in the western edges of the summer range chose to winter due south and south-west, in parts of Iran and the Indian subcontinent. Their migration route extended from the breeding area in a south-westerly direction to the Naurzum wetlands in northern Kazakhstan, before diverging southwest to the Caspian Sea and southeast to India on journeys that traversed seven nations. The eastern birds also went due south and wintered around Poyang Lake in the Yangtze River Basin of China. Our focus here, however, is on the Western Population. The migration route these birds charted took them over Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and eventually to the Gangetic Basin of northern India - much of the journey over hazardous and unforgiving terrain. With the arrival of hunter-gatherers to these areas 10,000 years ago a new threat to the survival of the Sibes emerged, one that would forever tilt the balance against them.
The early years of co-existence must have been good, though. Despite the arrival of humans and despite their increasing ability to use tools of destruction, the area traversed by the birds was thinly populated and the prevailing Indus Valley Civilization had its roots in agriculture and commerce and was, by all accounts, prosperous and peaceful. Also, the Sibes were not easy prey and needed much more than early weapons to bag them. Frank Finn, in fact, would describe them later as “a very wary bird, and when obtained is not good eating”[16, p128] and W. E. Brooks [Ibis1869, p237] “found it impossible to get within shot of the white cranes”.
Even after the route became more densely populated, the dependence on the hunt to survive was, perhaps, minimal and the prevailing regional culture may have encouraged kindness and compassion towards other living beings. Cranes would have been even better protected as in many cultures they were ”reckoned very happy animals in themselves, and thought to portend good luck to others, and this by reason of their ...long and fabulous life...”[Kaempfer in History of Japan] and there were orders against hunting them.
Long before the Bamiyan Buddhas were dynamited to dust and long after the Gandhāra kingdom was swept aside by the Mahmud of Gazni's forces, the perils on the route of the Western Sibes increased manifold. Gone were the days of peace and plenty and protection for cranes. The ancient practices of live crane trapping became well-ingrained and started to claim several thousand of birds of different species each year on the migration path. Subsistence hunting in Central Asia added to the toll. Strife and struggle appeared and settled for ever in much of the southern part of the route, and strife only escalated with time. Values that had celebrated nature and marveled at the beauty of creation develop and establish when happiness and peace rule. Survival takes over when your very existence is a speeding bullet away. To the point where it is impossible for a gun-toting ten year old to comprehend the value of life, tolerance and compassion - much much less the imperatives of sparing a 'brink of extinction' bird species! His inability to understand the marvels and tribulations of evolution, and the finality of extinction is no reflection on him – it is a reflection on us, and on the way we have let ourselves become!
This then is the story of the Western Sibes - a marginal population surviving in the harshest climatic conditions being unable to cope with the threats associated with their long and dangerous journey. They are an unfortunate species in as much as they chose the most perilous route possible in the context of human history – a route that eventually sealed their fate! But more than anything else, the fate of the Sibes is a rude reminder of our times and of our inability to control even simple things in an intolerant world torn asunder by greed, avarice and intolerance. The last Siberian Crane is in many ways an indicator of our ways, but more importantly is a lasting testament to our collective failure to make our lives in harmony with all existence.
Sumit K Sen
[Note: This is not an accurate description of the history of the Western Sibes and includes the author's own presumptions, views and beliefs. The story is written to encourage conservation]
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References and acknowledgements:
1. Birdlife Species Factsheet
2. Siberian Crane Flyway Coordination
3. Siberian Crane Stamp Issue
4. Edward Lear's litho of John Gould's White Crane
5. Cranes of the World by Paul A. Johnsgard (1983)
6. A Monograph of the Cranes by Frans Ernst Blaauw (1897)
7. The food of birds in India by C.W. Mason & Lefroy (1911)
8. The Birds of India, Vol - I-III by Thomas C. Jerdon (1863-1864)
9. Popular Handbook Of Indian Birds by Hugh Whistler (1928)
10. A Manual of the Game Birds of India Part-II by Eugene W. Oates (1899)
11. The Natural History of Cranes by Edward Blyth (1881)