September 01, 2003

Defending Russian Nature



In Western Russia, a shrouded figure

hurtles through a boggy glade, flapping a white cotton cloak. Behind her run two fawn-colored chicks, Siberian cranes, among the most endangered birds on Earth. Ten weeks old and over three feet tall, the chicks chase the ghostly shape’s billowing costume – the color and size of an adult crane – with imprinted tenacity. She flaps; they flap. She hops and jerks through the sucky swamp; they hop and jerk. She leaps a fallen log and splashes down; they too leap the log.

But they do not splash. Instead the two young cranes fly. They glide beneath dark oaks, beside white birches, above yellow water lilies. Where the glade ends, they flop to the ground. They hustle back to their flight instructor, Tatiana Zhuchkova, who is mired in mud, sweaty with exertion, bloodied by mosquitoes, and proud as any parent. Tatiana raised these chicks from eggs. She taught them to eat mushed-up fish, and then wild strawberries and water striders. If Tatiana’s chicks and a few more from this nature reserve can survive in the wilds of western and central Siberia, where they will be released at summer’s end, they may significantly increase the number of Siberian cranes remaining in those areas, now perhaps fewer than a dozen birds. (The species’ only substantial population, 3,000 birds in east Siberia, depends on vulnerable wetlands in China.)


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