The sarus crane: a particular bird

Cranes appear to be deciding on the water-depth. Photo: Truong Thanh Nha

Vietnam Heritage, May-June 2011 -- Every year, sarus cranes – an endangered species, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List – have flown to grass fields in Kien Giang Province, in the south-west of the Mekong Delta, and stayed for some months. Traditionally, the first three months of the Western calendar should see hundreds of them. But this year, only several tens of them had been observed by early March and they had flown away immediately.
Photographer Truong Thanh Nha, who has shot thousands of pictures of the cranes, some winning local and international awards, said, ‘At this time of every year, I have usually shot hundreds of crane photos. But this year, in more than a month travelling all around Kien Giang, I have not been able to take just one photo. Because I have seen only two or three cranes in one place, I have not been able to take good photos.’
According to Dr Tran Triet, the International Crane Foundation’s Southeast Asia Program Manager, the number of sarus cranes seen in Binh An Commune, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province, where the cranes have usually gathered most in Indochina, was 321 in 2009, and 134 in 2010.
Cranes also fly to Dong Thap, a province to the northeast of Kien Giang, still in the Mekong Delta. Tuoi Tre newspaper said that by early March this year there had been about 63 cranes in Tram Chim National Forest, in Dong Thap.
Photographer Truong Thanh Nha advised me to find Mr Hien, in Ba Nui Village, Binh An Commune, Kien Luong District, Kien Giang Province. He is known as ‘the crane-counter’. His house is about 150 metres from the marshes where cranes usually sleep. Mr Hien often guides photographers to places to take pictures of cranes.
Dr Tran Triet has taught Mr Hien a lot about cranes and Mr Hien has spread what he has learnt to the local people, in order that they should stop hunting cranes and instead protect them.
Mr Hien told me he had binoculars to count cranes and made written notes. He said, ‘Every year, cranes migrate to Kien Luong, from January to April. When the weather becomes rainy, they leave Vietnam. In the morning, from 6 a.m., [while they are in Vietnam] they cry tumultuously then split into flocks, each flock with tens of them, and fly away. In the evening, at about 6 p.m., they fly back to their marshes and sleep.’

Feeding, keeping an eye out.

Taking me to where the cranes slept, Mr Hien pointed to the sky and said, ‘This month, several years ago, at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., there would be hundreds of cranes flying and crying noisily above our heads. Over the past month I haven’t seen even ten of them. And they all flew away immediately. Maybe it’s because this place is [now] too polluted.’
‘Before 1990, there were years when thousands of cranes flew here,’ Mr Hien said.
A little way off was a clay mine about two hectares in area used by the cement industry. Half-a-kilometre in the opposite direction was a bald, rocky hill, which had also been exploited in making cement. A hundred and fifty  metres in another direction were nearly a hundred houses of Ba Nui Village and in another direction again about 20 shrimp ponds. Excavators and bulldozers roared. Explosive blasted from time to time. Clouds [presumably of dust] rose from rocky hills. When it got dark, the cement factory near the swamp was lit up, illuminating, in the process, the place where the cranes normally slept.
‘It has been like this for six years but the cranes still stay, because cranes really stick to the place they have chosen unless humans have gone just too far,’ Mr Hien said.
Dr Tran Triet said sarus cranes usually chose swamps or marshes, with water about two centimetres deep, to sleep. Dr Triet said recent expansion of clay-exploitation by Holcim Cement might have affected the cranes somewhat, but the main reason why cranes didn’t fly back to their sleeping-areas there was that people banked up water behind dams to reserve it for raising shrimp.
Mr Hien said Dr Tran Triet, photographers and reporters had petitioned local government for the marshes not to be inundated, but to no avail.
Mr Hien then took me to an Eleocharis [spikesedge] field of hundreds of hectares where cranes usually fed on the bulbs, about 3.5 kilometres to the east of the sleeping-place.
Mr Hien said ‘Before, there were a lot of cranes on this field. They used to fly here for Eleocharis bulbs. But in recent years people have built shrimp farms that have dogs and the dogs usually bark at the cranes or try to catch them, scaring them away.’

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