Flight into danger
Their flights to the distant lands turn into flights of death as the white, long-limbed, stately birds make their way from the harsh climes of Siberia to the tropical lands of India. The Siberian crane ( Grus leucogeranus ) is the most endangered of the crane species as these beguiling and harmless creatures are hunted with regular alacrity by the humans. The popular Indian varieties, common crane ( Grus grus ) and sarus ( Grus antigone ), along with the demoiselles ( Grus virgo ), frequently sighted in Pakistan, are also facing extinction. The threat to these birds come not just from hunters but also from ecological imbalances that are fast depleting their natural habitat.
A study conducted by B C Choudhury, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India ( wii ), says 1,761 sarus cranes were sighted in India in 1999. Most of these were in Uttar Pradesh and the rarer species, the eastern sarus crane, was found in Assam and Meghalaya. However, they may soon enter the annals of history unless urgent measures are taken to protect the species.
Hunting grounds Neighbouring Pakistan falls into the cranes' flight path with two of the species, common ( Grus grus ) and demoiselle cranes ( Anthropoides virgo ) migrating through the country. The endangered Siberian crane ( Grus leucogeranus ) is also known to traverse this route. They breed in the Siberian tundra and fly south along various routes within Asia to spend the winter in warmer regions. They stop at a number of sites enroute to feed and rest when they are easy prey.
The birds encounter the worst threat in the North Western Frontier Province ( nwfp ) of Pakistan where catching live crane is a favourite sport. For inhabitants here, crane hunting is a local tradition and a symbol of social status. They are gifted to guests and adorn their lawns and courtyards.
According to a World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan ( wwf-p ) study, there are 200 hunting camps in Bannu and Lakki Marwat districts of the nwfp to trap the birds with nine hunters and 12 decoy cranes per camp on an average. The hunting season falls between October and November, when the birds migrate from their breeding grounds to wintering grounds and in spring from March to April when they return.
Setting a trap Kurram, Gambella and Kashew rivers are the major sites for crane trapping in Bannu and Lakki Marwat districts in nwfp . They are trapped with soya , a contraption of a long, thin, silky rope with a lead ball (weighing150 gramme) at one end. At the dead of night, as the unsuspecting birds fly past, the hunters simulate decoy cranes for long and loud calls. As they hear the calls, the cranes come down and are hit by the soya thrown up like a projectile. The alighting birds are then trapped, though about half of them are injured in the process.
The migratory birds are also indiscriminately fired at by the people living around the rivers of Bannu and Lakki Marwat districts. In India, too, the farmers in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashta are also known to destroy the eggs of the cranes as the birds feed on their crops.
Friends of the bird However, not all humans are enemies of the crane. Some worship them as messengers of god while others admire their beauty as they wing their way to distant lands. Many villagers help to conserve the near-extinct species, guarding, feeding and reviving them before they reembark on their journey. One such place is Khichan, a nondescript village near Phalodi in Jodhpur of Rajasthan, which plays host to thousands of demoiselle cranes. And it is a sight to watch as the villagers recieve their friends who arrive on an annual visit.
Crane rain With the first rays of the Sun, the birds arrive, at first in flocks, then in swarms, from all corners of the sky, flapping their wings as they swoop down. Within the hour there are some 5,000 of these grey migrants everywhere