Siberian Crane Wetland Project: Everything You Need To Know About!

The Siberian Crane (which goes by the scientific name Grus leucogeranus or other names like the snow crane or the Siberian white crane) is one of the critically endangered waterbirds across the globe.

Its numbers are declining at a worrying rate.

Massive destructions of its migration routes- it records the longest migrations in the crane family, with a round trip as long as 10,000 miles- have hugely contributed to its dwindling population.

Fortunately, the government agencies, scientist networks, private organizations, biologists, and even citizens from different parts of the world have intervened to help save the bird from extinction.

The Siberian Crane Wetland Project (SCWP) is one evidence of the world’s effort to conserve this water bird by securing its migration routes

Find more details about the SCWP project below…

BUT before that, here are a few facts you need to know about this water bird…

FACTS About The Siberian White Crane

siberian crane

Description: an adult crane face has no feathers and has brick-red color. They all have white plumage, save for the black primary wings which are only visible when the bird is flying. They’ve long, deep pink legs.

Both males and females have a similar appearance, except that the female’s beak is slightly shorter and the male look marginally larger.

Juvenile cranes are characterized by dark red color face and light rust color head and neck feathers.

Younger cranes show mottled brown and white plumage.

Hatchlings have solid brown color.

Size: the bird is 55 inches tall, 10.8- 19 pounds heavy, and has a wingspan of 83 to 91 inches

Diet: when in their breeding grounds in spring, the creatures feed on insects, rodents, fish, and cranberries. While on migration, in winter, they dig tubers and roots found in the wetlands.

NOTE: Siberian crane forages the deepest in waters than any other crane.

Breeding: the birds migrate in April/early May to Arctic tundra to breed. The mated pairs usually engage in posturing and calling as a breeding display. Then the female will lay around 2 eggs in early June, after snow melts.

Both the male and female incubate the eggs for a period of 29 days. The chicks hatched start fledging at around 75 days.

In most cases, ONLY one chick survives due to the aggression that exists between them.

Life expectancy: the oldest crane known to humanity died at 83 years of age at ICC (international Crane Center), Wisconsin, and was named Wolf.

Distribution: there are only two populations of the crane remaining- the western and eastern populations. The population of the west usually winters in Iran, at a single site located at the Caspian Sea south coast. It breeds in Russian, south of OB River, east of Ural Mountains.

Then there’s the larger eastern population that usually breeds in northeastern of Siberia, while wintering along the Yangtze River, China.

There once existed a central population that used to nest in the western of Siberia and winter in India. Its last sighting was documented back in 2002 in India.

Conversation status: critically endangered species (red-listed by the IUCN)

Estimated population: 2900-3000

Population trend: rapidly declining population. The rapid decline is mainly attributed to the agricultural development, oil exploration, wetland drainage, and even water development projects.

The western population (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is affected by hunting more than the eastern.

Poisoning is the primary cause of the decline in China. Pesticides and pollution have affected the crane population in India.

Behavior: the cranes tend to disperse widely in their breeding locations, and are highly territorial. They maintain their feeding territories during winter but might form small, loose flocks and gather around their winter roots.

They usually feed around the day. And when feeding on the submerged vegetation, they’ll bury their entire heads in the waters.

They stretch their necks forward when calling. They produce different calls, which slightly vary depending on the sex.

Significance in human culture: the bird is sacred among the Siberian natives, namely Yukagirs and Yakuts. They associate it with kind celestial spirits, sun, and, spring.

Conservation efforts: Many conservations measures have been put in place. The bird is legally protected throughout its geographical range. It also enjoys protection from the international trade.

Multiple conservations efforts have been undertaken, the most popular one being the six-year Siberian Crane Wetland Project which we’ll discuss in more details in the rest of this article.

Siberian Crane Wetland Project Overview

The Siberian Crane Wetland Project was launched back in 2003 by the ICF (International Crane Foundation) who joined arms with the governments of Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and China. It is usually referred to as UNEP/GEF Siberian Crane Wetland Project because it was coordinated through the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) and was funded by the GEF (Global Environment Facility grant).

The overall responsibility for executing this project was vested in the following bodies of respective countries:

China: State Forestry Administration

Iran: Department of the Environment (DoE)

Kazakhstan: Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection

Russia: Ministry of Natural Resources / All Russia Research Institute for Nature Protection

Note that these bodies worked in close collaboration with other local, provincial and national government agencies, local communities, and even NGOs to make the project a success.

The 6-year project that ended in 2009 was primarily started with the primary goal of protecting or sustaining the ecological integrity of a network of globally important wetlands in the Eurasia region. This is due to the critical importance of these wetlands for the migratory bird as well as the wetland biodiversity.

Though the project focusses on saving the habitats for many wetland biodiversity, it uses the Siberian Crane, a globally endangered bird, as its flagship species for its efforts.

The project links the activities of a total of 16 MAJOR wetlands along the crane’s eastern and western Flyways.

All the wetlands selected for the project intervention conforms to the Wetlands of International Importance Ramsar Convention’s criteria. The flyways used by these cranes are shared by up to 27 other waterbird species- also facing the danger of extinction. It’s also worth noting that the wetlands targeted in SCWP are of significant cultural and socio-economic importance as they support the livelihood of the local communities while contributing to the overall regional development.

For your information, SCWP was the first ever full-size flyway project that got full funding by the GEF. The lessons learned from this project can be applied in all the future projects that focus on the conversation issues at flyway scale.

The Siberian Crane Wetland Project ended on 31st December 2009.

Siberian Crane Wetland Project Activities

This section explains all the major activities carried out by the project as a way of achieving its goals and make it a success.

But before getting into more details, it’s important to note that it functioned at three KEY levels, namely:

i). Site level

At the site level, the project focused on key activities that were aimed at improving the management effectiveness, minimizing the external threats, and even ensuring the necessary water flows to help maintain the wetlands’ ecological integrity.

The activities carried at this level included training the nature reserve staff, strengthening the already set legal enforcement and protection, involving the local communities, creating environmental education sessions as well as public awareness programs, developing the site management plans, and coming up with projects aimed at promoting sustainable livelihoods for the local communities.

ii). National level

At the national level, the Siberian Crane Wetland Project was involved in training, monitoring, education and creation of public awareness programs across all the sites, and also applied research to help arrive on sound management decisions- including the ongoing study of wetland system dynamics and seasonal waterbird movements.

SCWP also concentrated on improving the legislation, planning, and policy to support the conservation of the waterbird and wetlands.

Note that all these activities were coordinated with involvement of other national wetland initiatives in a bid to strengthen the integrated wetland management by collaborating with various organizations.

iii). International/Regional level

The primary focus at this level was the conservation of the flyways (that is, the network of the wetland sites located along the Siberian crane migratory pathways). To achieve this, the project enhanced cooperation among the four involved countries, promoted interaction among the different sites, and engaged the communities in managing the wetlands featured along the West/Central and East Asian flyways for ALL the migratory waterbirds.

Similar to the national level, the activities carried out in this level were carried out in close coordination with other migratory waterbirds initiatives- most notably the East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership alongside its Crane Working Group. They also closely integrated with the Conservation Plans, which was created through the CMS Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation of the Siberian Crane.

Collaborative events, such as international workshops, were also organized with these bodies.

Here are the top activities of the SCWP:

Site/National Activities

As stated earlier, the project worked with the governments of four nations of China, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia. This means that all their site and national activities were conducted in these countries.

Each of these countries had a number of targeted sites for SCWP activities.

NOTE: The targeted sites translated to the areas facing the most threat, are most critical for the variety of globally significant species, and are also most vital for the survival- and life cycle- of the Siberian Crane.

These sites include:

i). China

  • Poyang Lake Basin: this is the winter destination for 95% of the entire Siberian crane population, making it the highest priority site. The site faces a wide range of threats that need immediate, significant intervention.
  • Zhalong National Nature Reserve: the site enjoys the second highest priority and acts as an important staging spot for the waterbirds. The reserve is under severe, immediate threat from water resources diversion.
  • Keerqin National Nature Reserve: the activities in this reserve were conducted in cooperation with the Xianghai National Nature Reserve to address the water management issue.
  • Xianghai National Nature Reserve: another critical staging area for the cranes, this reserve faces immediate threat caused by use of unsustainable natural resources.
  • Momoge National Nature Reserve: a staging area for the birds. Requires low-level intervention to fight the dangers caused by inappropriate water and natural resources management.

ii). Iran

  • Bujagh&Sefi d Rud Delta: the efforts here included an increase in legal protection and introduction of other measures to improve habitat management and illegal incursions.
  • FereydoonKenar, Ezbaran&SorkheRudDamgahs: this is the only wetland known to the western crane population. Shooting is the main threat here and requires legal protection as well as integration of the locals into the management efforts. Water management is a problem too.

iii). Kazakhstan

  • Tyuntyugur&Zhanshura Lake: increased management capacity and legal protection, while maintaining the agricultural activities at low levels.
  • Naurzum Lake System: the site act as regular staging area for these waterbirds. Immediate intervention needed to educate the hunters about the species and manage the water regime.
  • Zharsor&Urkash Lakes: the key staging area for various waterbirds require legal protection, implementation of hunting regulations, and management capacity.
  • Kulykol Lake: increased management capacity and legal protection, while maintaining the agricultural activities at low levels.

iv). Russia

Middle Aldan Site Complex:

  • Kytalyk Republic Resource Reserve: a critical site encompassing a significant breeding area for the Eastern population, it requires increased legal protection to regulate the use of resources.
  • Kunovat River Basin: Capacity building activities and legal protection are necessary for this breeding site, though it doesn’t suffer immediate threat.
  • Konda &Alymka Rivers Basin: this acts as the breeding spot for the western population and required immediate intervention to regulate resource use and secure legal protection.
  • Tyumen & Kurgan Transboundary Area: the site also calls for increased legal protection as well as management capacity to help seize the opportunity window and keep the agricultural activities low.

Other important activities included:

  • Flyway conservation. This was aimed at ensuring long-term conservation of the migratory waterbirds, Siberian Crane included, along the main flyways through proper management of the network of the important international flyways.

SCWP partnered with the African-Eurasian Flyways Project (Wings Over Wetlands - WOW) - both of which are regional programs aimed at conserving the migratory birds' flyways and their habitats.

  • Capacity building and community co-management. The activities were mainly conducted in Iran, at the - FereydoonKenar Non-Shooting Area, in Mazandaran province. And focused on achieving sustainable, proper management regimes at the site. They planned to accomplish this through involvement of the local communities and stakeholders in the decision making process for management of the site.
  • Education and raising public awareness. Conducted in all the four main counties, the program offered training to the educating the locals, schools, nature reserve staff, leaders, etc. on the importance of wetland conservation. This was conducted through provision of education and training materials to the locals as well as the schools.
  • Flyway and Waterbird Monitoring. The major flyways include the Western and Central Asian Flyways, The Siberian Crane’s Eastern Asian Flyway.
  • Wetland research and conservation. The Poyang Lake Ecology Study. It concentrated on establishing the ecological relationship that exists among, water, plants and the wintering waterbirds. It was conducted within Poyang Lake National Nature Reserve, China.

A Word About Country Driven-ness And Coordination…

When dealing with projects involving a large number of countries, assessment of the country ownership might pose some obstacles.

However, this wasn’t the case for the SCWP, as all the four countries directly involved in its conceptual design. But this is not to say that the central governments were the ones truly responsible for driving the project. The responsibility is mostly attributed to ICF and a handful of interested scientists from China and Russia, and Iran who acted on personal commitment level as opposed to representing their active government policies.

Nonetheless, once the project was underway, both the provincial and national governments showed varying levels of cooperating and commitment to the project.

Most notably, the governments of China and Kazakhstan played a huge, active role in the project. And this can be seen in the results yielded in the project sites of both countries.

The Iran government participation can be labeled as the modest.

As for Russia, it was mainly their scientists who largely showed commitment to the project than the government. However, it’s worth noting that the provincial government played an active role in Yakutia (this could be the compensation for lack of central government support in the other sites?).

Overall, the driven-ness and coordination of the four constituent countries can be rated as satisfactory (for Russian alone, the score is Highly Unsatisfactory).

KEY Achievements of The Siberian Crane Wetland Project

siberian crane achievement

Despite being a complex project, faced by low management capacity at both site and national level in most of their targeted countries which they later overcame through additional recruitment and training courses, SCP was well managed and implemented.

This made it possible for the programmer to achieve most of its key objectives, with only some minor shortcomings which are expected of any project. In this section, we’ll outline the project’s key achievements:

  • Designation of new protected wetlands plus legal status upgrades to the existing ones was attained for a total of 814,583 hectares. Additional extensions made to the existing protected areas were 1,674,323 ha- making a total of 2,488,906 ha.
  • 12 of the 16 sites targeted by the projected gained the status of the Ramsar Convention’s Wetlands of International Importance. Nomination documentation for the remaining 4 sites was also prepared.
  • Naurzum Zapovednik is now part of World Heritage Site.
  • Management plans were developed for up to thirteen project sites and approved for eleven of them.
  • Wetland restoration activities and water management agreements were approved, funded, and also implemented at the 4 national nature reserves in China; a Basin agreement was also signed by the stakeholders at the Naurzum, Kazakhstan.
  • National wetland management guidelines for Russia were developed.
  • Progressive improvements in the effectiveness of management for most of the protected areas were made.
  • The project achieved improved capacity for the waterbirds monitoring. This resulted in the formation of flyway monitoring network (in China); development of migration monitoring expansion of prolonged surveys of the breeding birds in Yakutia; development of annual waterbird counts in Poyang Lake Basin; aerial surveys of the breeding waterbirds in western Siberia; development of proper bird monitoring in Iran’s project sites; and migration surveys of the Northern Kazakhstan waterbirds.
  • A regional database was created to store and share data related to the Siberian Crane. And even support publications for the same.
  • Unquantifiable capacity development at both site and provincial level through training, provision of equipment, and technical assistance. This is considered as the MOST important achievement of the project.
  • Great levels of applied research were carried out to inform the management decisions. Examples include the studies to determine the distribution and numbers of the Cranes with respect to water levels and plants, guidelines for minimizing the avian influenza risks at the wetlands of international importance (published as SCWP technical brief), and the satellite tracking of the Siberian white Crane to determine its migration routes,
  • Successful public awareness campaign, through awareness-related activities, which reached 30,000plus people in Kazakhstan alone.

Besides the main achievements outlined above, it’s also important to look at the immediate objective indicators of the SCWP.

Immediate objective indicators refer to the things a project wants to achieve during its lifetime or shortly afterward. It’s an important element as it defines the target of the project.

That being said, here are the 4 main indicators the project have achieved in its lifetime:

(a). Hydrological monitoring in the project’s final year indicates that the conditions at all the project sites conform to the minimum requirements of maintaining the wetland functions- as per the parameters to be set in site management plans.

(b). Monitoring in the final year shows that the total areas (in ha) of the wetlands habitat in the program sites haven’t declined beyond baseline arrived at for site management plans.

(c). The status of globally endangered species plus globally significant concentrations of the waterbirds are within the limits of the acceptable changes as specified in the site management plans.

(d). The status of the select wetland indicator species for identification in the project site management plans are within the specified limits of acceptable change for every site by the 6th year.

Results And Outcomes of SCWP Activities

Was this project a success?

This part explains all the results and outcomes delivered the project by the time it ended in December 2009. These outputs translate to assessment of the success of the project in producing all the programmed outputs- in terms of both quantity and quality- and in terms of timeliness and usefulness.

Outcomes of the project include:

  • The program achieved the appropriate legal protection, formation of straightforward regulations, and identified enforcement responsibilities at all the selected sites. The total area under protection was nearly 2.5 million ha; 12 out of the 16 site sites become officially recognized as Ramsar sites, and documentation for the remaining four was prepared.
  • It developed effective participatory management methods and even increased the management capacity for 11 protected areas- note that this was done at different levels of participation as well as implementation between the involved the countries.
  • External threats to the sites have been significantly reduced through offsite activities
  • Implementation of the site management plans got support boost by application of the results of the studies and researches conducted in the project lifetime
  • Sustainable and alternative livelihood projects for the local communities in the involved countries were developed around the targeted sites. Examples include training on setting up of NGOs and business planning and guest houses, micro-credit schemes, intensive farming, use of biogas to minimize use of firewood, and so on.
  • To ensure easy and effective implementation of the site management plans, the capacity of the staff in various agencies of the project was improved.
  • Extensive awareness activities and communication held across all the four countries was a massive success that enabled the stakeholders to understand the wetland biodiversity values.
  • Improvements were made to the site and national legislation plans, policies, and financial mechanisms to support migratory birds and wetland conservations.
  • Implementation of the monitoring programs aimed at studying the movement and distribution of the Siberian Crane and other globally endangered waterbirds
  • Measures were undertaken at the national level to help promote international cooperation
  • The implementation of training programs enhanced national capacity for waterbird and wetland management
  • Public awareness and environmental education were undertaken at national level. For instance, Kazakhstan, an environmental education program for school system was created, in which over 10,000 teachers took part in and took away training materials
  • Regional flyway networks were developed in Eastern as well as Western/Central Asia. A regional activities program was also undertaken within the adopted cranes' conservation plans.
  • Above all, the results of this project (including the lessons learned) were disseminated to benefit the global conservation community. This was done via international meetings, electronic media, publications, and so on.

Clearly, the output achieved all its objectives and also yielded real global environmental benefits, with no major shortcomings. The output can, therefore, be valued as highly satisfactory.

SCWP: Lessons Learned

For the 6-year period the project has been ongoing, it was truly a learning experience for all those who took part in. Many of the lessons learned- as outlined below- are as a result of the discussions helps during the interviews of those who took part in various parts of the project.

We’ll arrange the crucial headings under the project related subheadings to make them easy to understand and apply in relevant situations:

a). Designing a project:

  • Designing any project so that it becomes part of a broader process produces massive benefits for sustainability. And the synergies developed along the process yields much more effective interventions than a stand-alone project.
  • When picking a flagship species for the project, don’t take one that’s close to extirpation from the targeted sites. And if this situation is unavoidable, then the project should have a wider focus.
  • Having several sites per country is better and more cost-effective as opposed to having a single site in each of a handful of countries
  • Project design should consider all the possible national constraints
  • Changing the behavior of people can take a lot of time-give it space in your project design

b). Project management:

  • Hire the right people, right from the beginning of a project
  • Be quick to make changes where the project management seems to be failing
  • The role played by the operations manager at both the regional and national levels is quite crucial- do not underestimate their role in national level.
  • Guidance from the GEF (or GEF Implementing Agency) on how to manage a huge project can go a long way in making a project easier to manage
  • Always allow sufficient time for your project

c). Technical management:

  • Alternative livelihoods need to take account of level of the existing incomes
  • It’s important to start micro-credit schemes early in any project
  • Linking micro-credit to other expertise is quite crucial

d). Finance:

  • Proper project oversight and project management helps minimizes the overall project cost
  • The period between reporting the project spending and future funds release is way too short to promoted uninterrupted cash flow
  • Translation is one key issue for the management

e). Communication:

  • Everyone involved in the project should have an understanding of the value that lies in reporting
  • Films produce excellent results when used as part of awareness-raising activities

SCWP Way Forward

Though this project came to an end in Dec 2009, its efforts to conserve the critically endangered Siberian Crane and many other waterbirds as well as the wetlands required by these birds didn’t come to a halt.

The long-term sustainability of the results of this project has been well taken care of through the significant capacity increase, training of the staff at both the local and international levels, and the development of the regular funding mechanisms- through the national programs and NGO (non-governmental organizations) like ICF.

Coordination of the flyway scale efforts will go on through the East Asian- Australian Flyway Partnership and all its other groups, and via the CMS Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation of the Siberian Crane, which comprises all the 11 range states for the waterbird species.

All the future similar projects should focus on adaptive management of the wetland ecosystems to put up with the often diminishing water resources for humans and wildlife and climate changes.

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