One of my favorite things to do in China is to watch the ancient art of Tai Chi practiced by millions of Chinese in city parks at the break of day. As arms swing up in unison like graceful wings, I am reminded of the deep spiritual kinship the Chinese feel with cranes. Some 30 years ago, Tai Chi was the reason I was first drawn to cranes, when my class made a pilgrimage to the mysterious “crane zoo” in Baraboo to practice White Crane Spreads its Wings in front of a captive audience of cranes. Standing eye to eye with these magnificent birds, I was hooked! On that same day, I became aware of all the amazing work the International Crane Foundation was doing to save cranes in China, and why.
For decades, we have built a tremendous conservation legacy in China. From our Co-founder Dr. George Archibald’s vision of securing the wintering grounds of Critically Endangered Siberian Cranes at Poyang Lake to our leadership in establishing one of the world’s first successful community-based conservation projects at Cao Hai, we have made a deep commitment in China – and for good reason. China is home to five threatened crane species, including Critically Endangered Siberian Cranes and Endangered Red-crowned Cranes. Chinese reverence for cranes has resulted in a remarkable network of 46 National Crane Nature Reserves, protecting a total area over 71 million acres, and providing vital habitat for hundreds of species and livelihoods for many people.
Despite these gains, and although China’s economy has grown remarkably in recent years, there is still a great need for our help. Intense development pressure surrounds each of the crane areas. Thirsty cities demand the waters that sustain the reserves. Climate change, fires and invasive species loom large. Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes are declining across the country, and others face an unknown future.
This past year, the International Crane Foundation became among the first conservation organizations to be officially registered in China under a new law regulating non-governmental organizations. This new status enables us to intensify our programs and impact in the coming decades. We just hired our first China Country Director, Ms. Yu Qian, and we opened a new office in Beijing as the center for our programs that span across China.
I traveled to China recently with our new Vice President International-Asia, Spike Millington, who has lived and worked in China and throughout Asia for many years. We visited Poyang Lake, where our great team of Jiefeng Jin, Wang Hui, and Huang Huiqin were working with Visitor Program Manager Cully Shelton to enhance outreach efforts around the reserve. Poyang was as amazing as always – we saw about a quarter of the world population of Siberian Cranes and thousands of ducks, geese and swans.
We continued to Huize National Nature Reserve where Dr. Li Fengshan convened a meeting of more than 60 specialists working to secure the Black-necked Crane. Fengshan has led these efforts for Black-necked Cranes in western China for nearly 30 years. In Beijing, we had the honor of speaking at an event hosted by our government sponsor, China’s State Forestry Administration. In a room filled with leaders from the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, National Geographic Society, Green China and many others, our hosts made a special point of singling us out for our long-term commitment in China and our great partnership with the government and Chinese nature reserves.
No one deserves more credit for our long-term impact in China than Jim Harris. This spring, Jim will retire from the International Crane Foundation after serving for 34 years in diverse leadership roles including Education Director, Vice President, President, and East Asia Program Director. Together with his wife, Dr. Su Liying, Jim committed much of his life to the cranes, wetlands, and people of China. Their dedication to Chinese teachers and students has transformed caring into action for the places that cranes need. Thank you, Jim, for spreading our wings with grace and skill in China.