Flight to extinction

The November deadline for the arrival of Siberian cranes in India is long gone, and wildlife experts are apprehensive that the birds are heading for extinction.

By Pia Sethi
Published: Monday 28 February 1994

-- THE FAILURE of the Siberian cranes to pay their annual migratory visit, in mid-November, to the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur is fuelling anxiety that these birds may be on the brink of extinction.

The number of Siberian cranes coming to Bharatpur has declined steadily since 1969. In 1964, they had totalled more than 200. In 1982, there were 38 cranes and by 1990, the figure had gone down to 10. Last year, just five birds arrived.

A possible reason for the decline in the number of Siberian cranes coming to India is that their route over Pakistan and Afghanistan is fraught with peril. In Pakistan, Siberian cranes have traditionally been hunted for food. The unrest in Afghanistan has also taken its toll of the bird population.

However, V G Gogate, a scientist with the National Museum of Natural History, feels that over the past few years, the Siberian cranes have been spending only a couple of weeks at the park because a proliferation of in the park prevent the birds from getting at the tubers, which are their main food.

According to A S Brar, deputy chief wildlife warden, although reports of sightings of Siberian cranes have come from Haridwar, Muzaffarpur, and more recently Jabalpur, the cranes in question are either common or demoiselle cranes.

Last year, an experiment was conducted to augment the natural population of Siberian cranes by releasing two chicks bred in captivity to the care of their wild relatives. But the cranes flew off, leaving the two chicks behind.

Efforts are now on to send four juveniles to Siberia along with a flock of common cranes that winter in Bharatpur every year and whose migratory route has been traced to Tumein in Russia, about 850 km south of the Siberian crane breeding grounds. According to Brar, a fair amount of interaction between the two species has taken place in the past.

A major factor affecting the survival of the Siberian cranes is the uncertain political equation that exists between the countries that lie on the migratory route of the birds. Unless there is a free information flow between India, Pakistan, Russia and Afghanistan, and a combined action plan for the protection of the species, these beautiful white birds may never be seen again at Bharatpur.

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