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The History of Siberian Cranes in India

India used to be a winter home for Siberian Cranes from much before the arrival of humans. The earliest evidence of the presence of the species comes from a 17th century illustration by Ustad Mansur, and the last Sibe to visit India was a pair that spent the winter at Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur in 2001/2002.

By all accounts the Siberian Crane was never a very numerous species in India. Ustad Mansur's choice of subject is not a good indicator of commonness, indeed it may imply just the opposite. The Ustad is credited with drawings of the Dodo and Tragopans - one an extinct exotic, and the other a rare Himalayan species.

19th Century

It is likely that the birds wintering in India numbered in the hundreds by the turn of the 19th century. Brooks, writing in the Ibis in 1869, describes them as “...abundant, being found in large flocks (near Etawah), and the eggs may be obtained from Russian sources"
[7, p39] and A.O. Hume writing in the same publication in 1868 mentions that he procured “more than twenty specimens of the White Crane ...(between October and the middle of March)”[7, p41]. He also found 25 birds in 1859 in a large jheel about half-way between Agra and Kanpur. But by the time Oates got to publish his 'A Manual of the Game Birds of India' in 1899, his description highlighted the declining trends that had already set in. He goes to describe the status as “A rare winter visitor to parts of North-western India, chiefly the Eastern Punjab, Northern Sind, the North-west Provinces, and Oudh. Mr. Forsyth saw a flock at Dehri near Sasseram, and Col. McMaster shot a straggler near Nagpur" [10, p187] Frank Finn, writing in 1911, found the crane to be “purely a winter visitor, and a rather local and scarce one at that”[9, p128]. He does mention that “for several years following 1894, it (was) liable to come in some years in considerable numbers.”
Based on the above, it would appear that number of Siberian Cranes visiting India in the 19th century would be in excess of 400 birds. And they were fairly widespread, with Etawah (see map) being a key site before the cranes found sanctuary in Bharatpur post the1960's.

20th Century
There is little information available about the status of the species in India before the mid 1950's. Salim Ali, writing in the Handbook in 1969, mentions a large flock of 72 in Keoladeo Ghana, though he remarks that it is usual to find them in “small flocks of 12-15 birds”
[11, p145].
The first widely quoted count suggests a gathering of about 200 birds in 1964/65 (Lawrence H. Walkinshaw in "Cranes of the World" (1973)) – the largest ever recorded congregation at Bharatpur! But many, including Peter Jackson[20], question that number based on the quality of the source used by Walkinshaw. Perhaps, a more reliable high count is the100 birds recorded in 1967/68 by Ronald Sauey
[12] at the same site. Incidentally, by the mid 1960's, Bharatpur had become the chosen site for the Sibes in India, and they were not recorded anywhere else in the country except for stray sightings in Karera and Kutch. Part of the reason for the cranes flocking to Bharatpur from the middle of the century is attributed to the declaration of Keoladeo as a sanctuary in 1956, and to the last hunt (the Maharaja retained hunting rights in the sanctuary) taking place in1964. This is borne out by data that suggests that small numbers were recorded at Bharatpur prior to 1964. Ali is credited with recording 11 in 1935 by Sauey (1985) - a number which went down to 10 immediately on the collection of one for science!
Decade after decade post the 1960's, the Sibes number at Bharatpur (and India) dwindled. There were c. 75 in the early 70's, c.37 till the mid 80's, and 23 by 1988. The end was fairly abrupt. From 10 in 1990, it went down to the last pair by 1998.

21st Century
The last Siberian Cranes recorded in India were the pair that visited Bharatpur in the winter of 2001/2002. Despite rewards for information, and despite many rumors from different parts of India, there have been no record of the species, in India, since the departure of the pair in March 2002.

It is more than likely that there will be no more natural sightings of the Sibes in the country in the near future without human intervention. The birds from the gene pool that charted their way across 7 countries from the Ob river to India have been decimated in the wild. There may no longer be a viable population of the Central Flyway birds which can seed a new generation with the route to India imprinted in their brains. The only hope may lie with their nemesis – humans. Science has progressed to the stage where we can replicate learning in birds. It is not inconceivable that Siberian Cranes will again arrive at Bharatpur (or some other suitable perennially watered sanctuary) one day behind the wings of airplanes. That day may, however, be far away given the turmoil that exists across the old path.

Analysis of the decline
Reliable data conducive to interpretation is only available from the mid 1960's. The decline before that date must have been significant, and in no small part was it due to hunting in India. Hunting in India prior to Independence assuaged hunger and provided sport. Collection for the sake of science also played a part. The rulers (both Indian and British) had access to modern firearms and plundered our wildlife. The Governor-General of India, Lord Linlithgow, aided and abetted by Bharatpur's Maharaja, bagged 4,273 waterbirds in one day! Amateur scientists like Hume thought nothing of collecting 20 Siberian Cranes, and even later day Indian Ornithologists share the blame.
Events across the migration path also added to the decline. Kazakhstan witnessed almost a doubling of population between 1959 to 1989, thanks partly to Nikita S. Khrushchev's 'Virgin Lands Campaign'. In Uzbekistan, development of agriculture along the migratory routes of the cranes in southern part of Aral Sea region and along the river Syrdarya, in the 20th century, may have affected the habitat of the cranes. Years of drought in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan forced the cranes to visit less-safer sites and hunting for survival increased. As a result, the cranes numbers in India plummeted to 100 by 1964.
Post 1964, the decline in numbers continued. There were time blocks when the numbers were maintained, especially in the nine-year period between 1978 and 1986. But overall, the decline was steady and sure. A look at the graph below highlights some trigger years – years which signalled a large drop in numbers. The graph is based on averaging actual recorded numbers over contiguous similar count years. This way it eliminates counting errors and discounts years where the habitat was unsuitable for the cranes.

The first major decline post the mid 60's occurred during 1973/74, a period when parts of Central Asia witnessed unprecedented drought. The next big drop was after 1976/77, when the Crane population declined by 37% from 59 to 37 (based on averages). There are no apparent direct trigger events which caused this large loss, but events in Afghanistan were leading towards a period of strife and unrest culminating in the assassination of Daud Khan, and his government being overthrown in 1978. This may have had an impact by way of increased hunting in the area due to poor protection and easier availability of firearms.
During the 9 year period the Soviet's held sway in Afghanistan, the Siberian Crane population remained steady between 33 and 43 birds with local weather at Bharatpur influencing site numbers. [The low count of 33 was recorded in the drought year of 1979]. The steady Indian numbers appear to be in conflict with the conclusions drawn by Ahmad Khan in his 'A review of the wetlands of Afghanistan' where he suggests that "there was an alarming decline in the central population of the Siberian Crane"
[13] due to the arrival of the Soviets.
The Soviet's left in 1988, and the entire Central Asian route of the crane remained politically disturbed till 1991 as the Soviet Union started to disintegrate. By then the Crane population at Bharatpur had declined to 6 birds, with the largest drop in 1990, when Bharatpur recorded 41% less birds than the previous year. The 6 remaining birds represented an nonviable population for such a long-distance migrant and they perished over the course of the next few years from natural and unnatural causes.

Efforts to save the Siberian Crane
Many organizations, and principally the International Crane Foundation (ICF), made considerable conservation efforts to prevent the extinction of the population that used to visit India and Iran in winter. These included liaising with governments, building awareness among local people along the migratory path, managing habitat and raising funds. Several release experiments were also conducted from 1991 to 1998, including the release of captive-reared chicks, and foster-rearing by wild Common Cranes on the breeding grounds of the Central Population in the Kunovat basin. Captive-reared chicks were also released at Keoladeo National Park - but none of the released birds ever joined the wild Siberian Crane population and were lost over time.

Realizing the threats to Siberian Cranes in the wild, the ICF took the initiative to establish the species in captivity. This effort was successful and today there are several hundred Siberian Cranes at special facilities in Belgium, China, Russia and the USA.

"I always thought my Indian birdwatching career had an auspicious beginning when I arrived at Bharatpur on the same evening in December 1983 as 36 Siberian Cranes flew in for the winter. It has been so sad to observe the western population decline over the intervening years. I can, however, count myself lucky for also having been able to see about 800 Sibes along with 1000 or so White-necked Cranes at Poyang Hu in China at Christmas 1989 - one of the most spectacular avian sights I have ever seen." - Krys Kazmierczak [14]

"I was lucky to see these cranes in Bharartpur in 2002 when I saw a conservationist wearing the costume of these cranes teaching a chick (or was it a juvenile) how to feed." - Dilip Pandit [16]

"For two years running Kartika and I were first the observers to see the Siberian Cranes coming into Bharatpur in winter. Local news papers even carried our names for this lucky coincidence. The second time we were sitting on the bund one early morning when three Siberian Cranes dropped from the sky and landed not very far from us. Upon arrival they trumpeted joyously and did bit of happy dance. Now they live only in our memories." - Nitin Jamdar [23]

"9 November 2001 at about 8:30 a.m. the rickshaw-pullers and nature guides at the main entrance gate of the Keoladeo National Park (Bhartatpur, India) were pleasantly surprised to suddenly hear the call of the Siberian Cranes! There were no Siberian Cranes at the Park at that time. They looked up in the sky through the canopy of the acacia trees that dot that region profusely to find out what the call was.
And lo! Two Siberian Cranes were flying from the north towards the south, into the Park! Some people went on bicycles to reach the heart of the park where lie the lakes.
Others stood in admiration. The park echoed with a single note: the Siberian Cranes have arrived! Jubilation marked the scene.
" - Harsh Vardhan quoted in Siberian Crane Flyway Coordination [4]

The Future
As mentioned, it will be a near miracle to find Siberian Cranes in the future in India without human influence. But there are some straws that we can clutch. These include the regular sighting of very small numbers at Naurzum Nature Reserve area in Northern Kazakhstan – the main staging point for both Central and Western Siberian Cranes on their journey south. The optimistic will also find hope in the reported sighting of 10 Siberian Cranes in Uzbekistan during 2007, and from the annual winter rumors that reach the birding egroups.

So, is there a chance that a small wintering population still visits the subcontinent at a completely unknown site? - Unlikely, but hope never dies!

Practically speaking, the best chance for long-term rehabilitation of Siberian Cranes in India may really lie with us. Techniques have been developed for re-establishing migratory Whooping Cranes by training captive-reared birds to follow ultra-light aircraft along a traditional migration route. These techniques can be adapted to re-establish migratory flocks of captive-bred Central Siberian Cranes that again travel every winter from Russia to India.

But it is pointless to restore the populations of Siberian Cranes unless their security can be provided along the migration route. To quote George Archibald
“My colleagues in all nations along the migrations routes dream of reestablishing the central and western populations. But such a program cannot be successful until the cranes and the critical wetlands are properly protected. One can only hope that peace and security will come to the western Hindu Kush region, and that all of our fine colleagues in all 11 range nations of the Sibes can become increasingly effective in creating an environment where these Lily of Birds can flourish”

Sumit K Sen
Kolkata, India
July, 2011

References and acknowledgements:
Siberian Crane Wetland Project
Birdlife Species Factsheet
3. International Crane Foundation -
Siberian Crane page
Siberian Crane Flyway Coordination
Siberian Crane Stamp Issue
6. Cranes of the World by Paul A. Johnsgard (1983)
7. A Monograph of the Cranes by Frans Ernst Blaauw (1897)
8. The Birds of India, Vol - I-III by Thomas C. Jerdon (1863-1864)
9. Indian Sporting Birds by Frank Finn (1915)
10. A Manual of the Game Birds of India Part-II by Eugene W. Oates (1899)
11. Handbook of the Birds of India Vol -2 by Salim Ali (1969)
12. Sauey, R. 1985. The Range, Status, and Winter Ecology of the Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus)
13. Khan, A. 2006. A review of the wetlands of Afghanistan. Waterbirds around the world. Eds. G.C. Boere
14. Krys Kazmierczak. Pers. comm. dated 21/7/11
15. Brother Frank Gale. Pers. comm. dated 16/7/11
16. Dilip Pandit. Pers. comm. dated 16/7/11
17. Taej Mundkur, Programme Manager - Flyways, Wetlands International Headquarters
18. K.S. Gopi Sundar - International Crane Foundation
19. Peter Jackson, Chairman Emeritus, IUCN Cat Specialist Group
20. George Archibald, Co-founder International Crane Foundation, USA. Pers comm. dated 22/7/11
The Siberian Crane’s Western/Central Asian Flyway (pdf)
22. Bikram Grewal for Ustad Mansur's illustration
23. Nitin Jamdar. Pers. comm. dated 29/7/11


Compiled and created by Sumit K Sen I All rights reserved I Copyright © 2001 - 2017.
Reproduction in any form or medium without specific written permission is prohibited.
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