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UPDATED: August-7-2009 NO. 32 AUGUST 13, 2009
For the Birds

A LITTLE HELP: Breeders train red-crowned cranes to help them adapt to a future life in the wild on July 29 (WANG XIANG)

According to hydrological records of the past 100 years, Zhalong wetlands and its nearby Nenjiang River basin were not supposed to be in a drought period. Experts said the drought was caused by human activities.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the local government boosted economic development by turning wetlands to farmland and using lakes to breed fish. Even the small ponds were used for agricultural purposes. The newly constructed ditches, small dams, roads and drainage systems around and inside the wetland changed its hydrology and characteristics and damaged the integrity of its ecosystem. Marshes turned into dry grasslands. Salty and alkaline lands emerged, which lost their plant diversity, fish stocks and many rare birds.

Experts say the Zhalong wetland, if kept in good condition, can store and purify floodwater, regulate the local climate, replenish underground water supplies and preserve biodiversity and productivity. It can also significantly contribute to preventing the western desert from spreading east, and protecting the area from drought and salinization.

"The severe shortage of water puts pressure on the reproduction of wild red-crowned cranes in Zhalong," said Wang.

At the end of their incubation period in mid-May 2008, there were still more than 80 wild cranes who had not mated yet. "It's a rare occasion," Wang added.

In November 2008, experts observed a group of 70 red-crowned cranes who had not yet begun to migrate south. Only six chicks were born that year. And the number of breeding nests is below 20 this year. "It's obvious that the breeding success rate is decreasing," Wang said.

This year, the provincial government is rushing to establish a long-term water supply mechanism. Each year a fund of about 2 million yuan ($294,000) from the provincial government and 1 million yuan ($147,000) from municipal governments of Qiqihar and Daqing will be allocated to construct water supply projects. More than 250 million cubic meters of water will be diverted into Zhalong annually to solve the water shortage.

Make room for the cranes

Zhang Changfu, who migrated to Zhalong in 1958 from Shandong Province, saw the wild red-crowned cranes as soon as he arrived. Over the last 50 years, he made a living fishing and selling reeds.

"Now I realize that I am stealing food from the red-crowned cranes," he said.

There are more than 1,500 households in 13 villages living in the core area of the Zhalong wetland. Reed harvesting, overfishing and turning grassland to farmland almost destroyed the area's environment. Every year, many waterfowl abandon their eggs and nests and leave because of disturbances by humans.

If these households move out of the core area, rare birds like the red-crowned cranes can inhabit the area safely. It is reported that the provincial government has made a resident relocation plan that will be implemented in the near future.

"People have to live their lives, and the wetland also has to be preserved," said Li Changyou, head of the Administration of Zhalong National Nature Reserve. "The best way is for the 1,500 families to move out of the core area. That way, the villagers' lives can be improved and the precious wetland can be saved."

"I'm looking forward to moving to a better place," Zhang confessed, saying the worsening environment has meant that the reeds have not been growing well and his income has been falling.

Many residents said they understand why they need to be moved and others said they would move if a better place were offered. On the walls of the Zhaokai Primary School, whose students were relocated out of the wetlands in 2007, there are still slogans painted saying, "It is honorable to love and protect the cranes."

MAKING ROOM: In the future, villagers who live inside the Zhalong National Nature Reserve will be moved out to create a better wetland environment for wildlife (WANG XIANG)

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