Or­ganic farms help Thai­land wel­come cranes lost for 50 years

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE - —AP

A fuzzy-headed baby sarus crane hatched on a ru­ral farm this fall of­fers a glim­mer of hope for wildlife con­ser­va­tion­ists, or­ganic farm­ing ad­vo­cates and a na­tion griev­ing af­ter the death of their beloved king. That’s be­cause this chubby chick named Rice is the first of its aus­pi­cious species to sur­vive af­ter hatch­ing in the wild in Thai­land in 50 years.

The tallest fly­ing birds in the world, 70 in­cu­ba­tor-hatched, hand-fed sarus cranes have been raised and re­leased over the past five years in Thai­land’s farm-rich north­east province of Buriram, whoop­ing their star­tling two-toned song at dawn. “The older gen­er­a­tions told us about th­ese cranes, they said they bring luck, but when I ac­tu­ally saw one in my field I was so ex­cited,” vil­lage leader Thong­poon Un­jit said. He and dozens of other farm­ers stopped us­ing pes­ti­cides and parked their noisy trac­tors to help the birds sur­vive. They hand-har­vest for acres and leave large swaths un­touched around nests. Al­ready the birds have brought good for­tune: The farm­ers’ or­ganic rice sells for a pre­mium at Bangkok su­per­mar­kets.

Forty-two of the cranes re­leased in the wild have sur­vived so far, and eight are liv­ing in monog­a­mous pairs. But un­til now none have man­aged to suc­cess­fully re­pro­duce. Rice, now about a month old, likely pecked its lit­tle si­b­ling to death, but that’s to be ex­pected, say the ex­perts. “It’s been re­ally fun to watch this fam­ily,” said vis­it­ing or­nithol­o­gist Ge­orge Archibald, spy­ing on the yel­low-brown hatch­ling and its ma­genta-topped par­ents through a spot­ting scope. “I’ve been re­ally touched by the in­ti­macy of the par­ents to their ju­ve­nile. They’re just con­tin­u­ally watch­ing that chick.”

Archibald, co-founder of the In­ter­na­tional Crane Foun­da­tion, has ad­vised Thai an­i­mal sci­en­tists through­out their ef­forts to rein­tro­duce sarus cranes, 6foot-tall birds listed as vul­ner­a­ble glob­ally and ex­tinct in Thai­land. “There are many chal­lenges fac­ing th­ese cranes,” said Archibald. “Will the farm­ers tol­er­ate a lit­tle bit of dam­age in their rice fields? Will there be too many pow­er­lines? Will the cranes fly into them? Will this land­scape that has been ab­so­lutely trans­formed by mod­ern man have a place that’s safe for th­ese enor­mous birds?”

To bring them back, sci­en­tists bor­rowed a few sarus cranes from neigh­bor­ing Cam­bo­dia, where a rare flock lives in a refuge. The United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram helped pull to­gether more than $1.5 mil­lion for sarus cranes and two other en­dan­gered species in Thai­land. But rais­ing any type of crane to sur­vive in the wild is a del­i­cate mat­ter, in large part be­cause the birds tend to im­print on hu­mans around them. Wildlife bi­ol­o­gists who feed, care for and trans­port the birds from zoo in­cu­ba­tors to tem­po­rary out­door habi­tats wear fake crane suits to stop the birds from bond­ing.

At the Ko­rat Zoo last week, bird­keeper Sarawut Wong­som­bat, sweat­ing in his white gown, opened and closed a large Sarus crane pup­pet mouth in his right hand while wav­ing a tiny tilapia in front of the beak of an 8-day-old chick that wob­bled on its skinny legs. The lit­tle bird re­fused the fish again and again, shak­ing its head and hop­ping away. But when Sarawut took a break, the curious chick gob­bled a few meal­worms it found in a bowl, fol­lowed by some pink vitamin wa­ter. “He did OK for his first meal,” said Sarawut, pulling off the cos­tume.

About 100 miles north, two sarus cranes were re­leased just one day ear­lier, hop­ping into a wet­land from the arms of their “Mom and Dad,” an­i­mal sci­en­tists Tanat Ut­tar­aviset and Natawut Wanna, wear­ing gray-white gowns with hoods and fab­ric flap­ping wings. The shaky fledglings, who had spent the past three months in a tem­po­rary mesh shel­ter in the wet­land, hopped around and flapped their wings be­fore launch­ing on their first flights. Stand­ing thigh-high in a bog next to an or­ganic rice paddy, con­ser­va­tion­ists watched ner­vously as the birds they’d help raise each flapped a large loop over the field. It’s a dicey mo­ment when a sarus crane first flies: Some­times they crash into trees. Other times they face plant on touch­down.

On this day both aced their land­ings. More of th­ese re­leases are slated for later this month. Or­ga­niz­ers plan a cer­e­mony with the En­vi­ron­men­tal Min­istry to in­tro­duce nine ado­les­cent sarus cranes into the wild, hon­or­ing King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej, who died Oct 13 at age 88. The birds are con­sid­ered good luck, and bet­ter yet, the num­ber nine hon­ors the king, who was known as Rama IX for his place in the na­tion’s dy­nasty. Bhu­mi­bol’s legacy in­cludes his con­cern for up­coun­try rice farms, where he in­tro­duced sus­tain­able, en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly meth­ods. “It will be a great way to honor the king, with th­ese spe­cial birds,” said Nathanik Klak­langsmorn of the UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram.

—AP photos

THAI­LAND: In this file photo, a sarus crane takes its first flight as its re­leased above a wet­land ac­cli­mat­ing cen­ter in Buriram, Thai­land.

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