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The Cranes

Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan

Siberian Crane

(Grus leucogeranus)

JPG-Siberian Cranes

Population Numbers and Trends
Conservation Status
Historic and Present Distribution
Distribution by Country
Habitat and Ecology
Principal Threats
Current Conservation Measures
Priority Conservation Measures


The Siberian Crane is the third rarest species after the Whooping and Red-crowned Cranes. The total population was believed to number only a few hundred until 1981, when Chinese biologists discovered a wintering flock of 830-850 cranes at Poyang Lake along the middle Yangtze River in China. Subsequent field surveys have allowed scientists to revise the total population estimate upward to 2900-3000. These numbers, although encouraging, do not ease the conservation challenges the Siberian Crane faces. Archibald (1992b) notes that “from the tundra to the subtropics, few endangered species involve so many complex problems in so many countries as does the Siberian Crane.” The species is classified as Endangered under the revised IUCN Red List Categories. The Central and Western populations, because of their extremely limited numbers, are Critically Endangered.

The species is divided into three populations. All but a few belong to the Eastern population. These birds breed in northeastern Siberia and winter along the middle Yangtze River in China. The Central population winters in the Indian state of Rajasthan, most regularly at Keoladeo National Park. Banding studies indicate that the population’s breeding grounds lie in the lower basin of the Kunovat River in western Siberia. After a two-year absence, four birds, representing the entire known population, were observed on their wintering grounds in February. The Western population, which according to recent counts has only nine birds, winters at a single site along the south coast of the Caspian Sea in Iran. The exact location of the breeding grounds in northwestern Russia is being actively investigated through satellite-tracking, aerial surveys, and field interviews. Although the number of birds in the population has apparently held at 8-14 birds over the last 8-10 years, the population remains extremely vulnerable.

The Siberian Crane is the most highly specialized member of the crane family in terms of habitat requirements, morphology, vocalizations, and behavior. It is the most aquatic of the cranes, exclusively using wetlands for nesting, feeding, and roosting. It nests in bogs, marshes, and other wetland types of the lowland tundra, taiga/tundra transition zone, and taiga, preferring wide expanses of shallow fresh water with good visibility. Although its migration and wintering habitats are somewhat more varied, feeding and roosting sites are still found only in shallow wetlands, including artificial water impoundments in India and Iran. It is most frequently observed probing in wetlands for its preferred foods—the roots, tubers, sprouts, and stems of sedges and other aquatic plants.

The three populations of Siberian Cranes face an array of threats. The traditional migratory and wintering habitats of the species (especially in China) are under constant pressure from the demands of the growing human population on wetland systems and resources. Large portions of the Eastern population’s wintering grounds in China have been lost to drainage, reclamation, and agricultural development. These areas are also threatened by oil exploration and by construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Oil exploration and development pose a broad scale threat to the known breeding grounds of the species. Hunting is believed to be the major cause behind the rapid decline of the Central population, and is of continuing concern in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other portions of the species’ range. The Central and Western populations are especially vulnerable to these and other threats because of their extremely low numbers.

Concerted conservation efforts on behalf of the species began in the early 1970s. Since then, extensive research has been conducted on the ecology, ethology, breeding and wintering grounds, and migration routes of the species. Annual censuses are carried out in all three known wintering areas, and regular counts in several known breeding areas of the Eastern and Central populations. Based on this data, a PHVA was prepared for the species in 1992. Protected areas have been established at migration stopover points in Russia, Pakistan, and China, and at the wintering grounds in China and India. Since the early 1980s, educational programs have played a significant role in efforts to protect the Central population in its non-breeding habitats in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Information about the species has been shared at several international conferences and through expanded communications among biologists. Efforts are now underway to establish an international Siberian Crane Recovery Team and to develop a Recovery Plan. A Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation Measures for the Siberian Crane has been developed (though not yet signed by all the range countries). An intensive captive propagation program, involving three separate facilities, was initiated in the mid-1970s. Captive-raised birds are now being released in an effort to maintain the Central population, and releases are also planned for the Western population.

Priority conservation measures for the species include: active participation of all range countries in the Memorandum of Understanding; full development of the Recovery Team and Recovery Plan; creation of protected areas on breeding grounds and at key staging areas and stopover points; upgrading of habitat protection and management efforts at the wintering grounds in Iran and China; continuation of annual winter counts; identification of the breeding grounds in the Kunovat basin and possibly other areas in northwest Russia; identification of migration routes, important staging areas, stopover points, and alternative wintering grounds; studies of breeding, migration, and wintering grounds and other crucial aspects of Siberian Crane biology and ecology; and development of special educational programs involving hunters along the migration route of the Central population and communities near the wintering areas in Iran, India, and China. Captive propagation and reintroduction efforts should focus on bolstering the Western and Central populations, maintaining a genetically diverse captive population, and perfecting rearing and release techniques.

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There are no subspecies. The species is currently divided into three separate populations. Studies are underway to determine the intraspecific taxonomic status of these populations.

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Population Numbers and Trends

Population     Number Trend Source
Eastern 2900-3000     Unknown Song et al. 1995,
Gui 1995,
Harris et al. 1995,
J. Harris pers. comm.
Central 4 Steadily declining.
Observed on the
traditional wintering
grounds in February
1996 after a two-year        
A. Sorokin pers. comm.
Western 9 Holding at 9-11 birds
on the wintering
grounds since the
mid 1980s. Highly
A. Sorokin pers. comm.

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Conservation Status

IUCN Category     Endangered, under criteria
A1c   C1   C2b
CITES Appendix I
Population IUCN Category
Eastern Endangered, under criteria
A1c,   C1   C2b
Central Critically Endangered, under criteria
A1a,c,d   A2b,d   B1c,e   C1   C2b   D   E
Western Critically Endangered, under criteria
A1a,c   A2b,c   B1   B2e   C1   C2b   D   E

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Historic and Present Distribution

GIF-Distribution Map: Eastern

GIF-Distribution Map: Western and Central

Evidence regarding the Siberian Crane’s former range and abundance is unclear. Sauey (1985) attributes the disparities in the historical record to several factors: the species’ rarity; the remoteness of its breeding grounds; its extended use of traditional stopover areas during migration; the extremely localized wintering grounds; and the tendency of non-breeding individuals to wander extensively (often far from the breeding grounds) in the summer. Evidently, the species was never very abundant in historical times, and by the 19th century was declining due to human impacts. Sauey (1985) concludes that “while it is not possible to assess numerically the extent of the... decline over the last century, there can be little doubt that this species suffered great losses in range and numbers.”

The species probably had a broader breeding and wintering range than at present. There are records of the Siberian Crane breeding from Scandinavia to northern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia, and eastern Siberia. Some of these records may be questionable due to the remoteness of the breeding areas and assumptions based on occasional occurrences. The historical evidence for a more extensive winter distribution is stronger (see Sauey 1985, Sauey et al. 1987). The species may have wintered more widely along the southern Caspian Sea region in Iran, in the Gangetic Basin in India, and in the Yangtze River basin in China. There are also historical records of the species wintering in the Balkan Peninsula and in Turkey and other portions of the Black Sea region (Nankinov 1995).

The species now exists as three localized, disjunct wintering populations.

  1. Eastern population

    The Eastern population contains 2900-3000, more than 99% of the world’s total population. The main breeding grounds cover 82,000 km2 in the Yakutia region of northeastern Siberia, south of the East Siberian Sea between the Yana and Kolyma Rivers (Flint and Sorokin 1982, Labutin et al. 1982, Degtyaryev and Labutin 1991). Non-breeding individuals range widely, and have occasionally been observed during the breeding season in the Russia-Mongolia-China border region. The population migrates along a 5100 km migration route following the Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma River valleys, and then into eastern China, with several resting areas and longer-term stopover points (Degtyaryev and Labutin 1991, Harris 1992a). Although some of these important traditional stopover points are now protected by the Xianghai, Momoge, and Zhalong Nature Reserves, others remain unprotected. Vagrant individuals are occasionally reported in Japan, usually in the autumn.

    The population winters in a limited number of wetlands along the middle Yangtze River in south-central China (Ding and Zhou 1991). Approximately 98% of the population winters in one area—at Poyang Lake in northern Jiangxi Province. The Poyang Lake Nature Reserve protects some of the most important wintering sites in this area, but the birds also use adjacent sites outside the reserve. The remainder of the known population, perhaps a hundred or more birds, winters at Dongting Lake in the city of Yueyang in Hunan Province (Gui 1991, Harris 1991a). The population may use other as yet unknown wintering sites in China (J. Harris pers. comm.).

    The existence of this population had been noted in historical records, but there were no modern reports until ornithologists in China discovered the wintering birds at Poyang Lake in 1980 (Zhou et al. 1981). The population was thought to number only a few hundred until a larger flock of over 800 birds was reported in 1984. Subsequent surveys, using improved techniques, have allowed estimates of the total number to be revised upward (Liu et al. 1987a). The population is now believed to number approximately 3000 (Song et al. 1995, Gui 1995, J. Harris pers. obs.).

  2. Central population

    The Central population, as observed on its traditional wintering grounds at India’s Keoladeo National Park in February 1996, included only four individuals; it is possible that other members of the population have continued to winter elsewhere in India. The breeding grounds in western Siberia have been tentatively identified through satellite telemetry studies. In 1981, a breeding population of Siberian Cranes was located in the lower basin of the Kunovat River (a tributary of the Ob River), about 60 km east of Gorki (Sorokin and Kotyukov 1987). A juvenile from this area, satellite-tracked in 1992, followed a route toward India until its signal was lost near the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border. This indicates that the Kunovat cranes are probably the same birds that spend the winter at Keoladeo NP, near Bharatpur in the Indian state of Rajasthan (Archibald 1994). This was confirmed in February 1996 when a wild chick, color-banded at Kunovat in 1995, was observed at Keoladeo NP. This migration route is among the longest of any crane population. The presumed route passes through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with possible traditional stopover points at Lake Tengiz and the Naurzum wetlands in Kazakhstan, and at Ab-i-Estada in Afghanistan (Jamil 1994). The final leg of the migration route brings these birds across the Indus basin and northwest India.

    Wintering Siberian Cranes were reported with regularity in the Gangetic basin through the 1800s (Sauey et al. 1987). Since at least 1937, however, the only known wintering site of the population has been among the artificially improved wetlands at Keoladeo NP. In extremely dry years, however, the lack of water in the park can prompt the population to avoid this area, or to disperse from Keoladeo to other sites. Only a few of these alternative wintering grounds have been identified (Singh et al. 1987).

    JPG - Siberian Cranes at Lake Ab-i-Estada

    The population has been counted annually at Keoladeo NP since 1965. Since then, the population has declined steadily from around 200 in 1965 to just four individuals—a pair with a chick and a lone adult—in 1996. None were observed at the park in the winter of 1993-94, and 1994-1995. The alternative wintering site has not been identified. In the summer of 1994, not less than 9-10 Siberian Cranes were reported on the presumed breeding grounds of the population in the Kunovat basin (S. Sorokin pers. obs.). In February 1995, two Siberian Cranes were reported in northeast Iran along the Afghanistan border among a flock of Eurasian Cranes (F. Mostofi pers. comm.). Data from radio-tracking studies show that the Eurasian Cranes wintering in this area nest in the Kunovat basin, and it is probable that Siberian Cranes seen in this area also nest in the Kunovat region.

    The loss of adult and young birds during migrations through Pakistan and Afghanistan is thought to be the leading factor behind the decline. Attempts to supplement the population with captive-reared birds were initiated in 1991, and have continued each year up to the present. Results have so far been inconclusive. As of Autumn 1995, none of the seven birds released in the north are known to have migrated south successfully, and none of the six birds released in the south are known to have migrated north successfully. (See “Captive Propagation and Reintroduction” section below).

  3. Western population

    The Western population, which currently includes nine individuals, is known only from its occurrence at a single wintering site in Iran. The exact location of the breeding grounds has been long sought. At the time of publication, new information on the possible breeding grounds was beginning to emerge. In spring 1996, ornithologists working under the auspices of the Wild Bird Society of Japan were able to satellite-track a paired male in the population on its northern migration. The bird moved north from the wintering grounds along the western and northern coasts of the Caspian Sea, across western Kazakhstan, and east of the Ural Mountains to a site on the Kunda River, about 630 km due south of the Central populations’s breeding grounds at Kunovat (Wild Bird Society of Japan pers. comm.). As of June 1996, this bird had remained at this site.

    Other recent information indicates that the population may also breed in scattered locations west of the Ural mountains. In the summer of 1994, a pair of Siberian Cranes was reported on the tundra southeast of the Kanin Peninsula, 1000 km west of the Kunovat basin, midway between the Ural Mountains and Finland (V. Kalzakin pers. comm., Archibald 1994). Aerial surveys of this region have not yet been able to confirm their presence there. However, interviews with local people about their encounters with cranes offer hope that nesting sites may be located in the bogs and other wetlands between the Mezen and Pechora Rivers.

    Further studies are needed to determine the complete migration route(s) of the population. Only the southern portion of the route(s) has been substantiated. This portion stretches along the northern and western coasts of the Caspian Sea from the Volga River delta in the north to northern Iran in the south. The Astrakahn Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Volga protects a traditional stopover point in the spring and fall. The migration route continues through Dagestan and Azerbaijan to the population’s traditional wintering grounds—flooded fields at Fereidoonkenar and Esbaran along the southeast coast of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran.

    Historical information on the Western population is scarce (Vuasalo-Tavakoli 1991, 1995). Wintering Siberian Cranes were first recorded in Iran in 1773, but subsequent observations were scattered. The species may have been more widely distributed across the Caspian lowlands during the winter. The population was thought to have been extirpated until 1978, when a remnant band of 12 birds was reported at Fereidoonkenar (Sauey 1985). Since then, annual winter counts have been conducted, and the population has fluctuated between 8-14 birds (Vuasalo-Tavakoli 1991, 1995).

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Distribution by Country

Afghanistan M
Azerbaijan M
China NB, M, W
India W
Iran W
Japan V
Kazakhstan M
Mongolia NB, M
North Korea V
Pakistan M
Russia B, M
South Korea V
Turkmenistan     M
Uzbekistan M
B = Present during breeding season
M = Present during migration
NB = Present during breeding season as non-breeder
W = Present during winter
V = Vagrant

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Habitat and Ecology

JPG-Unison calling at nest in Kunovat basin, Russia

The Siberian Crane’s distinctive morphology, vocalizations, and feeding and courtship behavior distinguish it from the other Grus species (Johnsgard 1983, Sauey 1985). Its clear, high-pitched voice is unique among cranes. It is also the most specialized in terms of its habitat requirements, exclusively using wetlands for nesting, feeding, and roosting. Siberian Cranes are most frequently observed wading and probing for food in shallow (up to 30 cm) water. Fledged juveniles emit piercing calls to solicit feeding by their parents, suggesting that Siberian Crane chicks are more dependent on parental care than are post-fledged chicks of other species.

Siberian Cranes nest in scattered breeding territories, preferring wide expanses of fresh water with good visibility. The Eastern population’s breeding grounds in Yakutia are in lowland tundra (moss-lichen tundra and grass- and sedge-dominated wetlands), more rarely in forest-tundra transitional areas, and sometimes in the northernmost taiga between the Arctic Ocean and uplands to the south. The Central population breeds in the northern taiga in sphagnum bogs and marshes. These marshes tend to be large, open wetlands surrounded by forests and divided by long, low inconspicuous ridges, the cranes nesting in the shallow waters between them (Sorokin and Kotyukov 1987). The nests consist of flat mounds of grass and sedge elevated 12-15 cm above the surrounding water. Eggs are generally laid from late May to mid-June, with peak production occurring in the first week of June. In most cases two eggs are laid, with only one chick surviving to fledging. The incubation period is about 29 days, and chicks fledge at 70-75 days.

In general, Siberian Cranes consume a wider variety of food items, both aquatic and terrestrial, on their breeding grounds than on their wintering grounds. The diet on the breeding grounds consists of plants, including roots, rhizomes, sprouts of sedges, seeds, horsetails, and berries and cranberries, as well as insects, fish, frogs, small mammals (e.g., voles and lemmings), and other small aquatic animals (including, on occasion, waterfowl). Animal foods are especially important at the beginning of the breeding season, when plant foods are unavailable, and during the chick-rearing period (Sauey 1985, A. Sorokin pers. comm., M. Nagendran pers. comm.).

During migration, the cranes roost and feed in large, isolated wetlands. The feeding and roosting areas at Zhalong, China, for example, are 3-5 km away from the nearest villages (J. Harris pers. comm.). Water depths of 30-60 cm are preferred. Occasionally Siberian Cranes will use dry mounds within or on the borders of wetlands, and even upland wet meadows. However, they virtually never use drier upland areas, even those close to roosting or feeding sites. This holds true even in drought years.

Because Siberian Cranes in India and Iran use artificially maintained wetlands, the wintering areas in China are probably more representative of the species’ preferred winter habitat under natural conditions. In China, they forage in the shallows and vast mudflats created by the lowering of the water level in seasonal lakes during the winter dry season. The borders of the winter lakes shift with the changing winds, and the cranes follow the edges where the water-saturated soils create ideal conditions for extracting sedge tubers. The Central population’s wintering grounds in Keoladeo National Park consist of a series of artificial water impoundments that retain waters collected during the monsoon season (a dam also feeds water into the impoundments through a system of canals) (Vijayan 1990). The Western population winters within local “abbandans”—shallow (5-20 cm) artificial wetlands that are used to flood adjacent fields for rice paddy cultivation. In the winter months these areas attract waterfowl and have been modified with corral-like traps for capturing waterfowl. These areas are licensed and used by local farmer-trappers (Vuasalo-Tavakoli 1991, D. Ferguson pers. comm.).

Along migration routes and in the wintering grounds, Siberian Cranes eat primarily the roots, bulbs, tubers, rhizomes, sprouts, and stems of aquatic plants (and especially sedge tubers), but also take advantage of clams, fish, snails, and other aquatic animals if they are available. In China, the cranes of the Eastern population feed primarily on pondweed (Potamogeton malainus), stems and tubers of wild celery (Vallisneria spiralis), and small freshwater clams (Liu and Chen 1991). At Keoladeo, the birds of the Central population feed almost exclusively on tubers, corms, and roots of aquatic plants (especially the sedge Cyperus rotundus), supplemented by occasional animal foods (Sauey 1985). The cranes in the Iran population subsist on sedge tubers, other aquatic plants, and (possibly) rice gleanings (Vuasalo-Tavakoli 1991).

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Principal Threats

JPG-Breeding habitat near Kunovat, Russia

The breeding grounds of the Siberian Cranes are remote and relatively undisturbed. However, several problems have been identified in these areas. Oil exploration and development pose a significant threat. Oil has been discovered in and near the breeding grounds of the Eastern population in Yakutia. Drilling rights have been granted on the Yamal Peninsula near the Kunovat Nature Reserve, where the Central population breeds (Archibald 1990).

In the Kunovat basin, common crows pose a definite threat to cranes, destroying eggs when the cranes are disturbed by the approach of elk, reindeer, and other large animals. Logging practices in the Kunovat region also have negative impacts on cranes. In many areas, trees that are cut during the winter are hauled out by water after the spring break-up of the rivers. On these occasions, cranes that nest close to the rivers may abandon their nests (A. Sorokin pers. comm.). Flint and Kishchinski (1981) note that the herding of reindeer in portions of Yakutia can result in the trampling of crane nesting territories.

The most immediate threats to the Siberian Crane affect the species outside of its breeding grounds. These threats fall into several categories.

Habitat Loss and Degradation

Loss and degradation of habitat is of greatest concern at critical staging areas, migration stopover, and wintering grounds. Although several of the Eastern population’s major staging areas in eastern China are protected by nature reserves (principally the Zhalong, Momoge, and Xianghai reserves), many others in the flyway remain unprotected. At the same time, there is limited information about the migration route on which to base future protection efforts. Moreover, Siberian Cranes may use different migration routes in the spring and fall. The threat to migration habitats is greatest in China’s eastern provinces. Further research is needed to define better the most critical areas.

Many of the species’ key habitats, both within and beyond existing protected areas, are subject to increasing human population pressures, and are situated in areas conducive to intensive agricultural development. High human density, especially in eastern China, may be leading to unsustainable levels of exploitation of the water, fish, reeds, and other resources in many of the nature reserves (such as Xianghai) and in other non-protected wetlands along the migration routes (Harris 1986, 1992a). Drainage, reclamation, and agricultural development have claimed major portions of the wintering grounds at Poyang and Dongting Lakes. Oil exploration and development pose a threat to crane habitat at Dalainor Nature Reserve in Inner Mongolia, Momoge Nature Reserve in Jilin Province, Shuangtaizi Nature Reserve in Liaoning Province, at the mouth of the Yellow River, and at Poyang Lake. The development of oil fields in these areas involves not only the potential for direct damage from accidents, but also increasing levels of human disturbance and habitat degradation through the building of roads.

If construction of the proposed Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River proceeds, the impact on the Eastern population of Siberian Cranes (as well as wintering populations of White-naped, Hooded, and Eurasian Cranes) will be profound. The dam will disrupt the hydrology of the floodplain wetlands along the middle Yangtze, including those at Poyang Lake, by artificially maintaining low water levels during the summer flood season and raising water levels in the winter (when the cranes are present). These changes in the river basin’s hydrological processes will in turn result in changes in the wetland plant communities upon which cranes depend. The dam will also have detrimental social and environmental impacts on the regional landscape (Topping 1995). The disruption of upstream human communities, emigration, agricultural expansion, deforestation, and other land use changes will not only directly affect currently protected areas such as Poyang Lake, but also areas outside the reserves. While water control structures have the potential to mitigate some of the more direct and short-term impacts on the wetlands associated with the Yangtze, basic ecological studies of these areas have not been conducted, and the longer-term impacts have not been assessed.

Habitats of the Central population are also at risk. In Afghanistan, political tensions have made it difficult to observe, monitor, or protect effectively the staging area at Ab-i-Estada and other important sites (Jamil 1994). At Keoladeo NP, maintenance of adequate water levels can be an acute problem, especially during dry years. However, measures undertaken since the early 1980s have reduced pressures to drain and utilize the wetlands, and management strategies have been adopted that maintain water supplies in a portion of the reserve for the benefit of the resident Sarus Cranes (K. Rao pers. comm.). The grass Paspalum distichum is encroaching upon some of the park’s wetlands. Air- and water-borne pollutants and pesticide use in adjacent areas also present problems within the park (D. Ferguson pers. comm.). Pesticides are also a problem in the flooded rice fields that the Western population uses on its wintering grounds in Iran (A. Sorokin pers. comm.).


Human disturbance affects all three populations. Disturbance due to late winter waterfowl hunting is a serious problem for the Western population in Iran. The Central population’s wintering grounds at Keoladeo National Park are situated in one of India’s most populated regions, and pressure on the park from people and livestock has risen in recent decades. Sauey (1985, 1987) concluded that human activities at Keoladeo NP—fishing, burning, cutting of firewood, and other activities—affected Siberian Crane foraging behavior and forced them to alter their roosting sites. Since Sauey’s studies, significant progress has been made in controlling and even eliminating these types of disturbance (A. Brar pers. comm., K. Rao pers. comm.). Disturbance is also a factor for the Eastern population at migration stopovers (e.g., Zhalong, Momoge, and Xianghai Nature Reserves) and at the wintering grounds. The cranes at Poyang Lake in China are regularly disturbed by fishing, burning, grazing, illegal hunting, and other activities that take place within the reserve (Harris 1986, 1992a; Harris et al. 1995).

Inadequate protected area management

Ineffective administration and inadequate management of protected areas is an important threat to the species. Protected areas often suffer from a lack of political support for their goals, limited training opportunities for their personnel, and inadequate financial backing for their programs (Harris 1992a). This holds true in the Chinese system of nature reserves (which has expanded rapidly over the last two decades) as well as in Russia and Mongolia. A lack of integrated resource management skills also makes it difficult for managers and administrators to cope with resource-related problems arising from surrounding land-uses. The owner of the wintering area of the Western population in Iran protects the site, though not specifically for the cranes.


Hunting pressure is of concern in some portions of the species’ range. Hunting has been documented on the Eastern population’s wintering grounds in China, although this practice has declined in recent years as a result of local and national restrictions and international agreements (J. Harris pers. comm.). Nevertheless, poaching of cranes and other birds remains a concern at Poyang Lake Nature Reserve (Harris et al. 1995).

Hunting pressure during migration has likely been a significant factor behind the steady decline of the Central population. Crane hunting is a traditional sport in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan where the population passes during migration (see the Demoiselle Crane species account in this volume). Demoiselle and Eurasian Cranes are the main object of hunting activity, but Siberian Cranes are occasionally taken (Roberts and Landfried 1987, Jan and Ahmad 1995, Landfried et al. 1995). Sauey (1985) concluded that the losses in the Central population are “almost certainly” attributable to hunting, while Archibald (1992b) noted that uncontrolled hunting in this region is “the weakest link in the chain of... survival” for the Central population. Jan and Ahmad (1995) and Landfried et al. (1995) summarize the legislative, educational, and research efforts that have been undertaken in response to the hunting situation in this region.

The Western population is also vulnerable to hunting on the wintering grounds in Iran, which are used by waterfowl trappers. The potential threat comes not from waterfowl trapping itself (as a rule trappers in the area do not attempt to capture cranes), but from late winter “shoot outs” that are held in the trapping areas just before the waterfowl migrate. During these hunts, hunters attempt to shoot waterfowl that have not yet been trapped. The cranes are extremely vulnerable at this time.

Genetic and demographic factors

The threats to the Central and Western populations are compounded by the low numbers within these populations. Both flocks are now susceptible to problems associated with inbreeding, skewed sex or age structure, and increased risk of losses due to catastrophic events.

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Current Conservation Measures

JPG-Wintering at Poyang Lake Nature Reserve, China (eastern population)

Legal and Cultural Protection

Under the hunting laws of Russia (and the former Soviet Union), cranes have never been considered a game species and the hunting of cranes has been prohibited. On the breeding grounds in Western Siberia and Yakutia, the shooting of cranes is exceptionally rare. Among local inhabitants—the Hahnty and Mahntsy in Western Siberia, and Yakutians in Yakutia—Siberian Cranes are considered sacred birds, and have historically been protected. In these areas, and in Russia generally, there have never been traditions of crane hunting. Legal statutes provide a substantial fine (the maximum possible for a bird species) for shooting cranes or for harming them in any other way. Prison terms of up to three years may be imposed for violations (A. Sorokin pers. comm.). The new independent states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan have maintained protections developed under the former regime. Siberian Cranes are legally protected in Iran, but de facto protection has largely been due to the attention of local landowners (D. Ferguson pers. comm.).

In China, all cranes have been listed as nationally protected animals since 1990 (Fan et al. 1994). In addition, hunting of Siberian Cranes has recently been prohibited through a national law and through local regulations (adopted mainly in the mid-1980s). Hunting is also prohibited under the 1982 China-Japan Agreement on Migratory Birds. Since 1983, three of Pakistan’s four provinces have enacted crane hunting and possession legislation (Ahmad and Shah 1991, Landfried et al. 1995). These measures have been modestly enforced. In India, Siberian Cranes are held in high regard and are not hunted. India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 provides legal protection for the species (D. Ferguson pers. comm.).

International Agreements and Cooperation

Of the eleven countries where Siberian Cranes occur regularly, five (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia) have signed the Ramsar Convention (see Table 3.2). While awaiting confirmation of the Convention, the new independent states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have guaranteed fulfillment of obligations under its provisions.

International conservation efforts involving the Siberian Crane have expanded greatly since the early 1970s (Ferguson 1993). Scientists within the former Soviet Union had collaborated on research and conservation projects prior to the first regular contacts with non-Soviet crane conservationists in the 1970s. Ornithologists from the USSR and USA began cooperative conservation projects in 1974 (Flint 1995). The Soviet Working Group on Cranes, established in 1978, provided a focus for research and conservation involving all the cranes of the former Soviet Union. Until it dissolved in 1989, the SWGC organized biennial meetings, published scientific information and research reports, and promoted the designation and establishment of protected areas. Efforts are now underway to a reestablish a crane working group in Russia.

Since the early 1980s, information about Siberian Cranes has been exchanged at the international level through crane workshops and meetings. Siberian Crane biologists and conservationists from Russia, India, China, Iran, Japan, Germany, the United States, and other countries met in India (1983), China (1987), Estonia (1989), Pakistan (1991), and Russia (1992). Since Russia opened to foreign travel, Russian and non-Russian crane biologists have been able to work much more closely together. Cooperative efforts have expanded significantly in recent years. For example:

Cooperative activities have also expanded to address other critical conservation needs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported a 10-year (1980-1990) study of Keoladeo NP. Part of this study, which was undertaken in cooperation with the Bombay Natural History Society, focused on the winter ecology of the Siberian Crane (Vijayan 1990, D. Ferguson pers. comm.). Since 1980, the USFWS has worked with the government of Pakistan on a bilateral conservation program focusing on Siberian Crane research, education, and training activities (Roberts and Landfried 1987, Landfried et al. 1995).

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Concerning Conservation Measures for the Siberian Crane was signed in 1993 under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) of Wild Animals (the “Bonn Convention”). As of June 1995, the MOU had been signed by Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Kazakhstan, while the governments of India, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan had also expressed strong support. ICF, the UNEP/CMS Secretariat, and the Wild Bird Society of Japan are also signatories to the agreement (D. Hykle pers. comm.). The MOU now provides a framework through which conservation efforts for the species can be formulated, coordinated, and implemented (see Topic 2).

Development of a Siberian Crane Recovery Team

Efforts to establish a Siberian Crane Recovery Team have been underway since 1992. Modeled after the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, the Siberian Crane Recovery Team will include representatives from various range countries. It will develop and periodically update a comprehensive Siberian Crane Recovery Plan. Since 1992, several meetings have been held to lay the groundwork for permanent establishment of the recovery team, and to outline immediate conservation needs and priorities for the species (see above). The team is currently led by Alexander Sorokin of the Russian Institute of Nature Conservation and Reserves. Further development of the team, however, has been slow due to a lack of funding and inherent logistical and communication difficulties.

Protected Areas

Protected areas have been established to safeguard many critical Siberian Crane habitats. The breeding grounds in Russia have been largely unaffected by intensive development due to their remote location. Three refuges (zakazniks)—Elon, Khroma, and Tchaigurgina—have been established in the breeding range of the Eastern population in Yakutia. Efforts are now underway to protect the breeding areas of both the Eastern and Western populations in special protected areas (see Krever et al. 1994). Game refuges currently exist in these areas, but they provide insufficient protection (A. Sorokin pers. comm.).

Resident non-breeding Siberian Cranes sometimes use the Dalainor Nature Reserve (China) and the Daurski Nature Reserve (Russia). Seven protected areas are found along the migration route of the Eastern population in Russia. In China, key migration stopover points of the population are protected in the Zhalong, Momoge, Xianghai, Keerqin, Shuangtaizi, Huang He Delta, and Shengjin Lake Nature Reserves (Wu Zhigang et al. 1991, Harris 1992). The Central population uses the Naurzum and Kurgaldzhin Nature Reserves in Kazakhstan during migration. The government of Pakistan has established the Indus Reserve (in 1990) and the Lakki Refuge (in 1992) to provide greater protection to cranes during migration and to provide education and training opportunities (Landfried et al. 1995). The Astrakhan Nature Reserve in Russia protects the Western population’s traditional stopover point in the delta of the Volga River on the Caspian Sea.

Since 1983, greater protection for the Chinese wintering grounds has been secured through the establishment of Poyang Lake Nature Reserve and three reserves at Dongting Lake in Hunan Province, China (Gui 1991, 1993, 1995; Harris 1992a; Ma and Li 1994). Keoladeo National Park was established in India in 1981.

Habitat Protection and Management

Habitat management to benefit the Siberian Crane has been pursued primarily in and around the protected areas listed above, especially at Poyang Lake in China and Keoladeo in India. This has involved mainly improvements in reserve administration and law enforcement, management of water levels and protection of water quality, more effective regulation of resource extraction activities, and encouragement of conservation practices on adjacent lands.


All three populations are counted on an annual basis on their wintering grounds. Regular counts are also conducted on the breeding grounds of the Eastern and Central populations, although these counts do not cover all of the known or potential nesting areas within the breeding range (A. Sorokin pers. comm.).


Over the last 20 years, extensive research has been undertaken on all three populations. Scientists have conducted ecological and behavioral studies on both breeding and wintering grounds (e.g., Flint and Kishchinski 1981, Zhou and Ding 1982, Sauey 1985, Ashtiani 1987, Zhao et al. 1986, Liu and Chen 1991, Vuasalo-Tavakoli 1991, Harris et al. 1995). The breeding grounds of the Eastern population have been identified and defined (Flint and Kishchinski 1981), while aerial surveys of the Kunovat River breeding area have been conducted since 1981 (Sorokin and Kotyukov 1987). Through migration studies of the Eastern population, significant staging areas, stopover points (especially along the southern China flyway), and wintering grounds have been identified (Xu et al. 1986a, Li and Li 1991, Wu Zhigang et al. 1991, Williams et al. 1991). In the autumn of 1993, the Central population’s migration stopover at Ab-i-Estada was the subject of a preliminary survey and conservation needs assessment (Jamil 1994). Satellite radio tracking studies of the migration routes of the Western and Eastern populations have been undertaken through a collaborative project of the USFWS, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Wild Bird Society of Japan (Archibald 1994, H. Higuchi pers. comm.). The USFWS has also supported long-term ecological studies at Keoladeo NP and basic field assessments in Pakistan (Vijayan 1990, Landfried et al. 1995).

Population and Habitat Viability Assessment

A preliminary PHVA was conducted for the Siberian Crane at a Crane Conservation Workshop held in Calgary, Canada in August 1992 (Mirande et al. in prep. d). The critical findings of the PHVA were that: (1) the Eastern population has a high probability for stabilizing if current trends continue, and if winter and migratory habitat can be adequately protected; and (2) the Central and Western populations have a high probability of extinction within the next decade unless the high mortality rates are greatly reduced, and significant numbers of captive-raised birds are successfully released and survive to breed. The international Siberian Crane Recovery Team that is now being established will incorporate these findings into a species recovery plan (see above).

Education and Training

The imperiled status of the Siberian Crane has stimulated intensive educational efforts. In particular, educational programs have since the early 1980s played a significant role in efforts to protect the Central population in its non-breeding habitats in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Landfried et al. (1995) review the history, development, and accomplishments of these programs. The effort in this region has entailed broad public awareness programs, programs targeted specifically at hunters, and training sessions for conservation officials. A variety of methods has been employed, including audio-visual programs, television documentaries, leaflets, brochures, workshops, and public meetings and presentations. Educational centers are also being planned at the Lakki Refuge in Pakistan and at Esbaran in Iran. A concerted effort has been made to integrate these educational activities with research and planning projects (Landfried et al. 1995). Captive-raised birds are being provided for educational programs in India, Iran, and Pakistan (C. Mirande pers. comm.).

Conservation education projects are less developed in other portions of the species’ range. Programs involving several species of cranes, including the Siberian, have been initiated in China as new reserves have been established. Up until now, these programs have emphasized dissemination of information through facilities and displays rather than through interpersonal communication between local people and reserve staff. Captive-bred birds have often been used in these programs, but with no guarantee that they complement and support information on habitat conservation. Only recently have several of the reserves begun to stress the conservation of wetland resources as part of their education mission (Harris 1992a).

Captive Propagation and Reintroduction

Because two of the three wild populations are on the brink of extinction, and the third population remains highly endangered, sound management of all captive Siberian Crane and coordinated support of propagation and reintroduction efforts are considered critical to the survival of the species (Mirande et al. in press a).

Efforts to organize a conservation-oriented captive propagation program for the species began in the mid-1970s (Putnam and Archibald 1987). Concerns about the continued decline of the wintering population in India and the lack of information about the status of the species on its wintering grounds in Iran and China prompted efforts to establish a “species bank” of captive birds. Under the auspices of the US-USSR Agreement on Environmental Exchange, ICF and ornithologists in the former Soviet Union cooperated in establishing captive flocks at ICF (1976), at Vogelpark-Walsrode in Germany (1979), and at the Oka State Nature Reserve in Russia (1979). The first successful breeding of Siberian Cranes in captivity occurred at ICF in 1981. As of the 1994 breeding season, 84 Siberian cranes were in the captive program, and 111 chicks had been hatched.

The international studbook for the Siberian Crane is maintained in Russia by Vladimir Panchenko. The studbook does not include a complete listing of the birds in China (a Chinese studbook developed in 1992 needs to be revised). Most members of the captive population are derived from the Eastern population; a small number of breeding birds are from the Central population. Twenty-four of 33 wild-caught birds have produced young. The captive population is being managed to support both a viable, self-sustaining captive population and experimental release efforts in Russia, India, and Iran.

In 1993, the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group sponsored a meeting to develop a Global Animal Survival Plan (GASP) for the Siberian Crane as part of the broader definition of Global Captive Action Recommendations for the species. Among other measures, the GCAR recommended that the species be managed at the highest (Intensive-1, A priority) level, that the total captive population be expanded from 200 individuals, and that efforts be made to bring Chinese institutions into active participation in the global breeding program. The Siberian Crane was also selected as a model for cooperative global strategies for endangered species (Mirande et al. in press a, Mirande and Panchenko in prep.).

Since 1990, crane specialists in Russia have collaborated closely with colleagues from other countries to manage the captive population of Siberian Cranes and to release captive-raised cranes into the wild (Kumar 1994). Thus far, these efforts have involved the following:

Nagendran (1995) has studied the behavioral development of captive-reared Siberian Cranes in conjunction with the release program.

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Priority Conservation Measures

The Eastern population of the Siberian Crane shares many conservation priorities with the other migratory cranes of East Asia that migrate through northern China and winter in the middle Yangtze River valley. The Central population shares many conservation priorities with the Central Asia and Eastern populations of the Demoiselle Crane and the Western Siberia population of Eurasian Cranes.

International Agreements and Cooperation

  1. Fully implement the Recommended Actions for the Conservation of the Western and Central Populations of the Siberian Crane developed under the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Conservation Measures for the Siberian Crane (see UNEP/CMS 1995).

  2. Secure the endorsement of, and active participation in, the Memorandum of Understanding by all range countries.

  3. Support establishment of the Siberian Crane Recovery Team and its efforts to develop (and update on a regular basis) a detailed Siberian Crane Recovery Plan. Although several preliminary meetings have been held in recent years to determine conservation priorities for the species, the planning process should be formalized and should involve additional participants from throughout the species’ range.

  4. Address the conservation needs of the Siberian Crane within an umbrella international agreement on the conservation of the migratory cranes of East Asia (Japan, Russia, China, Mongolia, and North and South Korea).

  5. Strengthen international efforts to monitor Siberian Cranes along their migration routes and to protect important vulnerable habitats (this may be undertaken simultaneously with similar efforts for other crane species).

  6. Improve the dissemination of research results on population sizes, migratory routes, mortality, and other aspects of Siberian Crane biology and ecology through preparation, translation, and distribution of regular summary reports.
Protected Areas/Habitat Protection and Management
  1. Preserve the known breeding habitats of the Siberian Crane by creating and/or upgrading protected areas in the Kunovat River basin and near Chokurdakh in Yakutia. As surveys identify more precisely the breeding grounds of the Western and Central populations, immediate steps should be taken to protect additional areas.

  2. Protect additional staging areas and stopover points along migration routes. Key areas that currently lack effective protection include:

  3. Strengthen management of the wintering grounds in China. Priorities at the Poyang Lake Nature Reserve in China are:

    Most of these needs pertain as well to the Dongting Lake reserves. In addition, efforts should be undertaken at Dongting Lake to:

  4. Strengthen protection efforts on the wintering grounds in Iran, including:

  5. Maintain strong protections at the wintering grounds at Keoladeo National Park in India through:
  1. Continue annual counts of the three populations on their wintering grounds.

  2. Conduct comprehensive land surveys in India to identify alternative existing and potential wintering sites of the Central population outside of Keoladeo National Park.

  3. Continue aerial surveys of breeding areas in the Kunovat basin and other parts of northwest Siberia, especially between the Mezen and Pechora Rivers in the northern portion of the Arkhangelsk region.

  4. Distribute throughout the Kunovat region Siberian Crane identification cards to provide the public with information and to encourage the reporting of sightings.

  5. Support continued development and deployment of more reliable satellite telemetry equipment.

  6. Place standard radio transmitters with mortality censors on released birds.
  1. Continue efforts to locate the breeding grounds of the Western population through satellite tracking studies and aerial surveys; identify possible breeding grounds by correlating information on water depth, vegetation type, and other habitat characteristics using geographic information system (GIS) technology.

  2. Identify more precisely the migration corridors, important staging areas, stopover points, and wintering grounds of all three populations through satellite tracking studies, banding studies, aerial surveys, and other monitoring techniques. In particular, additional research is needed:

  3. Determine the migration routes of major populations of Eurasian Cranes migrating south from Kunovat and Tumen or north from the wetlands east of Rajasthan. Identify a population that migrates through areas where cranes are not hunted. (Such a population may be used to help establish a migratory flock of Siberian Cranes).

  4. Monitor the status of habitat in crucial breeding, staging, and wintering areas through aerial surveys and remote sensing.

  5. Conduct further research on other crucial aspects of Siberian Crane biology and ecology, including: distribution and numbers of breeding cranes; basic studies of the hydrology, vegetation, and ecological dynamics of traditional breeding grounds, migration stopovers, and wintering grounds; habitat use, status, and management; food habits and foraging behavior; local movements on wintering grounds in China; and the impact of human activities, including hunting.

  6. Translate and publish existing research results. Most of the information on Siberian Cranes has been published originally in Chinese and Russian. While much of this information has been translated into English and is available through ICF, other research papers remain inaccessible for most scientists and conservationists.
Education and Training
  1. Expand interactions between crane hunters and conservationists and develop a focused hunter education program along the migration route of the Central population, with special emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan (the education center at the Lakki Refuge should be developed as part of this effort).

  2. Continue community education programs in Pakistan and India, and initiate such programs in Iran. Programs should emphasize the uniqueness of the local wintering populations and the need for effective conservation programs. Establish education centers, with several captive-bred Siberian Cranes on site, at Esbaran in Iran and at the Lakki Refuge in Pakistan.

  3. Develop coordinated public education programs throughout the species’ summer and winter ranges and along its migration corridors. Education programs should be undertaken as part of the Siberian Crane Recovery Plan.

  4. Develop educational materials for use in other protected areas along the Siberian Crane migration routes and on the wintering grounds. These materials should be prepared in local languages and designed specifically for each area.

  5. Develop in China special educational materials, involving both the general public and local people living near the critical wetlands, that emphasize the protection of cranes within the context of broader conservation goals.
Captive Propagation and Reintroduction

Priorities for captive propagation and reintroduction of the Siberian Crane are described in the GCAR for cranes and in the Siberian Crane GASP. Specific recommendations and plans for the captive propagation and release of Siberian Cranes into the wild are developed by members of the Siberian Crane Recovery Team and are available from ICF. Future efforts should focus on the implementation of these plans and further refinement of release techniques. In keeping with the recommendations developed through these programs, the general priorities for captive propagation and reintroduction are:

  1. Bolster the Western and Central populations through the release of captive-raised birds in Russia, India, and Iran; annually review results and revise plans; expand efforts to monitor migration and mortality; and support transport of non-migrating birds to staging and wintering areas.

  2. Maintain a genetically diverse captive population. Support participation of the captive centers in the global propagation plan and in ex situ conservation programs. Special emphasis should be placed on expanding the participation of Chinese breeding centers in the global captive propagation plan.

  3. Improve techniques for rearing cranes in captivity for successful reintroduction. Further research is needed to improve poor reproduction among hand-reared, imprinted founders and to understand better the late age of sexual maturity within the species.

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