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The Cranes

Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan


When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.
         - Aldo Leopold, “Marshland Elegy” (1949)

Wherever it has resounded, the trumpet call of the crane has stirred admirers of natural beauty and the wild. Over the last 150 years, however, the music of cranes has diminished in the world. A majority of the cranes is now threatened with extinction in the wild, and the risks that they face are formidable. This action plan seeks to keep their trumpets sounding.

The crane family exemplifies many of the challenges and opportunities of modern biodiversity conservation. These include, for example, efforts to maintain viable populations of rare and endangered species; to pursue ecosystem management in response to local, regional, and global threats; to address problems associated with trade and exploitation; to coordinate protection in the wild with captive propagation and reintroduction programs; to anticipate and preclude potential human/wildlife conflicts; and to develop sustainable alternatives to destructive patterns of resource use. The family of cranes includes only fifteen species, but it embraces a rich record of conservation trials and achievements.

The goals of this action plan are: to review existing knowledge of the world’s cranes and the habitats that sustain them; to use this information to assess the current status of the cranes; to identify high priority measures that may enhance the conservation of cranes and the wetland and grassland ecosystems in which they occur; and to recommend and rank specific conservation actions based on these needs.

The action plan is aimed at the full spectrum of individuals and organizations currently or potentially involved in crane conservation: conservation biologists and other scientists working on cranes, grasslands, and wetlands around the world; agency officials and decision-makers whose responsibilities include cranes and their habitats; local, national, and international conservation organizations; other NGOs working on related aspects of sustainable development; international development agencies, whose activities affect in diverse ways the ecosystems upon which cranes depend; political, civic, and business leaders who seek to bring human economic activity into closer harmony with natural systems; funding agencies, foundations, and other organizations that provide critical support for conservation work; educators at all levels who are interested in the particular issues of crane conservation as well as more general topics in environmental science and conservation biology; and members of the general public who wish to learn more about cranes, their status, and their future needs.

Cranes possess several attributes that make this action plan different from those that have been prepared for other taxonomic groups. They belong to one of the most threatened families of birds on earth. Because of their large size, distinctive behavior, extensive territories, and cultural significance, they have served as “umbrella” and “flagship” species in many conservation efforts. Scientific understanding of cranes is great compared to most other taxonomic groups. Moreover, over the last 25 years much has been done to promote their conservation, especially through the world-wide efforts of the International Crane Foundation (founded in 1973). More than 30 major crane workshops, conferences, and symposia have been held during this period, producing a substantial body of literature on crane biology and conservation. In 1992, the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group cosponsored a Crane Conservation Assessment and Management Plan (CAMP) Workshop, the findings from which provided the foundations for this action plan. For all these reasons, this document is unusually detailed compared to other global-scale conservation action plans.

Section 1 provides a broad overview of the conservation biology of cranes. Section 2 consists of individual accounts for each of the fifteen crane species. Each account includes discussions of subspecies and populations; population numbers; conservation status; historic and present distribution; distribution by country; habitat and ecology; principal threats; and current conservation measures. Each account concludes with a list of priority conservation measures in various areas (e.g., protected areas, surveys and monitoring, research, education, etc.). These priority measures in turn provide the basis for the global and regional recommendations outlined in Section 3. In some cases, the recommendations build on existing programs. In most cases, however, the recommendations are intended to guide scientists, NGOs, agency officials, and other conservationists in defining future activities. All text references are listed in the Literature section.

The appendices at the end of the action plan provide information on the IUCN/SSC Crane Specialist Group Members; the Crane Working Groups; the new IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria (which have been used to propose revisions in the classification of the cranes within the plan); preparation of national crane action plans; and securing support for crane conservation projects.

The action plan has been developed with a 10- to 15-year horizon in mind. The Crane Specialist Group will closely monitor progress in undertaking recommended actions, and will periodically update the plan. To achieve its goals, actions will need to be undertaken at the local level, but will need to be well coordinated. Thus, one of the underlying aims in preparing this plan has been to provide a “big picture” in which crane conservationists can see where their distinctive contributions fit. Finally, the plan identifies gaps in our knowledge of cranes and their habitats. This should challenge field biologists and supporting organizations to continually strengthen the foundations of knowledge upon which successful conservation actions are built.

The state of the world’s cranes and their habitats is precarious. Their fate will be determined in large part by the daily actions and long-term aspirations of people on five continents, under widely varied circumstances. We hope that this document will help to ensure that the cranes find safe passage into and through the 21st century.

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