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International Effort Keeps Cranes Flying High

The dry season on the southwestern coast of Vietnam is crane-counting time. Near a small village on its border with Cambodia, wildlife ecologists from the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin and researchers from Ho Chi Minh City stake out the ponds and marshes where the Eastern Saurus cranes gather to feed. Reporter Gil Halsted joined them, and learned that tracking the crane population in Vietnam and protecting their habitat is a joint effort.

Just at dusk, a flock of cranes flies in from the east, calling to each other. The big birds' silhouettes are clear against a gray sky dominated by the belching smokestacks of a huge concrete factory. They land in the shallows of a small pond where they will roost tonight, and cool off. Researchers count about 30 birds in the flock.

The cranes seem oblivious to the blasting going on in the nearby hills. The noise won't end until the sun is finally down and it's too dark for the concrete factory workers to blast out any more limestone.

The next morning, binoculars in hand, Tran Triet leads a small group on a bird watching expedition to the 2000 hectares of uninterrupted green wetlands that makes up the International Crane Foundation's sanctuary. As the crane flies, it's about three kilometers from the pond where the flock roosts at night. Four or five of the stately birds with their red crested heads and long gangly legs are feeding in the wetland. Triet, chief ecologist for the Crane Foundation projects in Vietnam, says it's a family group.

Shrimp farming poses threat

A raised dirt road separates the sanctuary from a canal that runs along the border of the neighboring industrial shrimp farm. Ponds stretch to the horizon, almost to the coast. They are dotted with pumps that aerate the water and locks that mix the salt and fresh water to the ideal blend for shrimp growth.

As a motorboat buzzes by on the canal, Triet says the development pressures here are the same as they are near the concrete factory where the cranes roost. "Cranes will not come here if, y'know, too many people travel on this road and this canal," he explains. "They will abandon this."

It's not just the boat traffic that threatens the cranes, it's the shrimp farms themselves that are the greater threat. The brackish water in the ponds degrades the fresh water wetlands as the salt leeches into the soil. When the shrimp farms fail because of disease or drought – which they often do – Triet says the land is ruined for the cranes, as well as for rice cultivation. He says restoring it to wetland is almost impossible.

That threat makes protecting the Foundation's wetland sanctuary even more crucial. This year's crane count found less than 200 birds feeding here, compared to more than a thousand counted eight years ago.

Finding common ground for people and cranes

In an effort to keep the population from shrinking more, Triet and his students set up a conservation project with the village of Phu My, close to the sanctuary. The villagers harvest lepironia from the wetlands. They use the plant's long grey-green stems to make mats for drying and winnowing their rice. Tran Triet says lepironia grows side by side with another species of grass that provides the main food source for the Eastern Saurus cranes. "So if we manage the harvesting of lepironia well, then there will be no conflict of crane use of the same area."

Inside a small building with white washed walls about 20 women work at sewing machines and large looms strung with twisted strands of lepironia grass. They're weaving straw mats and tote bags to sell in handicraft shops in Europe and the United States. Their work for the Phu My Lepironia Grassland Conservation Project nets them almost $2 a day. That's triple what they were making as rice farmers before the project began.

This marriage of interests – between cranes and the humans they share the land with – is the same approach the Crane Foundation uses in Wisconsin, where it's headquartered. Sitting in his office, wetland ecologist Jeb Barzen points to a map with potato fields marked on it and explains the strategy the Foundation has used to convince farmers to use non-toxic pesticides and preserve some of their land for sandhill cranes to feed on. In return, the farmers place a World Wildlife Fund label on their potatoes, which allows them to charge a premium for being environmentally friendly.

But Barzen says the farmers also get the satisfaction of knowing they are managing their land responsibly. "It's trying to create an alternative to help compete within this economic system that we have that actually includes these environmental issues. So it's the same thing, but it's in a Wisconsin context."

Crane figures in cultural symbolism

The sandhill cranes in Wisconsin have an important cultural significance and a special place in people's imagination, just as the Saurus cranes do in Asia. "Cranes are a fascinating animal and basically most cultures and most people look at them and say they're cool, and that gives people who are foreign to each other something in common," Barzen says, adding that's what makes it possible for this cooperative wildlife conservation model to protect the birds whether they live in Wisconsin or in Vietnam.

Even before European potato farmers settled in Wisconsin, the crane played an important role in the life and beliefs of Native Americans here. Almost all the chiefs of the Ojibwe tribe belonged to the crane clan.

And the stately bird is also an important cultural symbol in Asia, according to wetland ecologist Tran Triet. "You see crane pictures [on] very old pieces of art. If you go to the Bayon Temple in Angkor, you see crane sculptures carved on the wall of the temple. That was in the 12th century. And if you go to pagoda or temples in Vietnam you see statues of cranes, symbol of longevity."

And if the Crane Foundation is successful in Phu My, the real life models for those sculptures will continue to be a part of the changing ecology and landscape of both Wisconsin and Vietnam.