Cranes: Ambassadors for Conservation | Wisconsin Public Television

Cranes: Ambassadors for Conservation

Cranes: Ambassadors for Conservation

Record date: Aug 09, 2017

Richard Beilfuss, President and CEO of the International Crane Foundation, discusses the connection between cranes and the health of ecosystems and watersheds around the world. Beilfuss shares stories of the work being done in Wisconsin to recover and stabilize the endangered species of cranes.

University Place Campus: 

University Place Lecture Series: 

University Place Subjects: 

Episode Transcript

- Welcome, everyone, to

Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

I'm Tom Zinnen.

I work here at the UW-Madison

Biotechnology Center.

I also work for UW-Extension

Cooperative Extension, and on

behalf of those folks and

our other co-organizers,

Wisconsin Public Television, the

Wisconsin Alumni Association,

and the UW-Madison

Science Alliance,

thanks again for coming to

Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

We do this every Wednesday

night, 50 times a year.

Tonight, it's my great pleasure

to introduce to you

Rich Beilfuss.

He's the CEO of the

International Crane Foundation

up in Baraboo.

He was born in

Chicago, Illinois.

But he can't help that.

[laughter]

He went to high school at

La Grange High School,

then went to Northwestern

University

and got an undergraduate

degree in economics.

Then he came here to UW-Madison and got two master's degrees,

one in civil

engineering and one in

water resources management

from the Nelson Institute.

Then he got his PhD here at UW

Madison at the Nelson Institute.

He started working with the

International Crane Foundation

as a graduate student in 1988.

He became their CEO in 2010.

As I mentioned in my little

missive, I never saw sandhill

cranes when I was a kid, and

it's amazing to me when you see

them fly over the countryside

and roads of Wisconsin now,

because I always think,

what's the blue heron doing

stretching its neck out? [laughter]

Oh, it's not, it's

craning its neck out

and therefore it's a crane.

I think it's a wonderful story

that we get to hear tonight

on cranes as ambassadors

of conservation

for all over the world.

Please join me in welcoming Rich

to Wednesday Nite @ the Lab.

- Thanks.

[applause]

Great. Good evening, everyone.

Can you hear me okay here?

Yeah. Good.

Before I start my talk, I want

to shout out two of the many

celebrities in the audience here

right now, but I want to

acknowledge Ginny Wolfe, who is

a very long-serving member of

our board of directors, great to

see Ginny, and Tran Triet, who I

didn't know was coming and I'm

going to talk about him in a

little bit, but Tran Triet has

led our work in Vietnam for

close to 20 years and is just

a stellar conservationist.

It's great to see

you here, Triet.

You're going to see a

picture of yourself later.

[laughter]

So it's great to be here.

As Tom said, I've been with

the International Crane

Foundation for a long time.

And part of the story I'll tell

you tonight will maybe explain

why I've stuck around so long

and why I have this weird

background of economics and

engineering and water and a bit

of biology and why all of that

relates to crane conservation.

That's one of the stories,

take-home messages I hope

comes clear tonight.

We are a very diverse bunch

at the Crane Foundation

because our work very

much kind of embodies

the conservation challenges

we face all over the world.

And I'll tell you some stories

from different places we are

around the world, but I kind of

want to start more fundamentally

with this, who are these weird

crane people up in Baraboo?

Why do we exist, and

what are we doing?

So, I'll sort of start

you off with that.

I think many of you have been up

to Baraboo to the

Crane Foundation.

I don't know if I can

do show of hands on TV.

Quite a few. Great.

Well, we're delighted

to have you up here.

Many people know us from Baraboo

but I think a much smaller

percentage of the people

who sort of know us here

in Wisconsin really know

us in this role,

which is a global

conservation organization.

We are very active in

more than 50 countries.

We work with a network of

more than a thousand people.

We have major regional

programs in Asia, Africa,

as well as here

in North America.

And that's a big

part of the story

I'd like to share

with you tonight.

So, why cranes?

We sort of talk about

what is it about cranes?

What's the quality of cranes

that just works

for conservation?

First of all, I think they're

stunningly beautiful.

Many of the different

crane species

are stunningly beautiful.

They're also very conspicuous,

often with long, white necks.

They stand out.

They're huge birds.

Birders love them because

they're not little tiny LBJs.

You can actually see

them and identify them.

[laughter]

They do these

exquisite dances.

If you've ever been up at the

Crane Foundation and see the

birds dance in unison call

together, you know that, or if

you've seen them out in the

wild, it's very engrossing

to see these beautiful

dancing, mating rituals.

They're very good parents.

They actually raise

a precocial chick.

They're very good at

tending to that chick,

and they do a lot

of parental care.

Most cranes raise

one or two chicks.

That is a big part

of their problem

of why we struggle to

keep them in the wild.

Some raise up to three

but that's about it.

So they're good parents.

They do fantastic migrations.

They fly over

beautiful landscapes.

Many of the cranes have

long, long migrations.

These are black-necked

cranes flying over Bhutan.

They also fly over Tibet.

So they're beautiful in flight.

And they form

tremendous congregations.

These are the Eurasian cranes,

and this is in the

Hula Valley of Israel,

actually not up in the north, not that far from Syria,

up that way.

And they form incredible

concentrations, and some of you

may know their concentrations or

congregations in the fall here

in Wisconsin and on the Platte

River in Nebraska and so on.

And they select a nest and

live in beautiful places.

They take us to many beautiful

places around the world.

It's a great perk of working

for the Crane Foundation.

I get to go to a lot

of beautiful places

and work to try to save them.

And because of all that, I

think, their beauty and elegance

and calls and striking, striking

viewing in the wild and all,

they've been a part

of our culture

for a very, very long time.

This is from Utah.

This is a Native

American paintings.

In Australia, you can

find Aboriginal paintings

dating back tens of thousands

of years with cranes.

They've been part of our

culture for a very long time.

Cranes are often on the

wedding kimonos in Japan.

You see them all throughout East

Asia, and they're actually

mentioned in the bible, in the

fundamental Hindu texts,

including the Ramayana, and

the Buddha story of suffering,

how Buddha discovered suffering

in the ancient Buddhist texts

is actually over the

shooting of a crane.

It's often falsely identified

as the swans, but there were

actually not swans in the area

where Buddha lived at the time.

So it was actually the shooting,

probably of a sarus crane,

which Triet right here

does a lot of work.

So really deep

cultural connections.

And because of that, cranes

are embedded in culture

all over the world.

The national, the center of the

national flag of Uganda

is a grey crowned crane,

and the national soccer

team is called the Cranes.

I love that.

We're always rooting for them.

They're on money in many, many

different countries, in Japan.

The five-cent coin

in South Africa

is called a blue

for the blue crane.

They, this is the

National Bank in Uganda,

the Crane Access Bank.

They are embedded

culture throughout.

And yet there's a paradox with

that because, on the one hand,

they're loved, really and

culturally throughout the world,

and yet they're among the

most endangered family

of birds in the world,

so how can that be?

To be so loved and

so endangered?

The data kind of

speak to themselves

about the status of the family.

There's 15 species of

cranes around the world.

11 of them are

officially classified as

some level of endangered,

either critically endangered,

endangered or vulnerable

to extinction.

Those are all different

categories of threat.

Only four of the 11

species of cranes

are officially not threatened.

And three of those species

actually have major populations

or subspecies that are

threatened or endangered.

So none of them are just in

the clear, even our sandhills

that are becoming so

abundant right here.

I'll tell the whooping crane

story a little better,

a little bit later, sorry,

but there's about 500,

probably a few less,

in the wild.

They hit a low of

about 15 in the world.

And there's other

cranes that are

in really dramatic decline around the world.

So they're loved and they're

very, very threatened.

I think that there are three

ideas that explain this sort of

paradox and also why cranes

are great focal point

or ambassadors for conservation

as we like to call them.

I think the first key idea is

cranes are really very sensitive

indicators of

environmental health.

For a big bird,

and they are very big birds--

Cranes include the

tallest flying bird on Earth, the sarus crane.

They actually

have a very sensitive

relationship to the environment,

and in many cases have very

strong responses to

changes in water and land.

For example, these

little dots here

are black-neck cranes up

in the Tibetan plateau.

And they nest in areas up there

that are fed by glacial melt runoff from the Himalayas.

And so they're very sensitive to

changes in runoff in that area.

They're a species we're

watching very closely

in terms of climate change and

change in local conditions.

Very much triggered to

the availability of water

in those high altitude regions.

Whooping cranes, and I'll tell

the whooping crane story a

little bit later, another bird

very sensitive to water and

land-use changes along the

coast, including a very tight

relationship to the blue crab,

which is about 90% of its diet.

I'll talk through that story a

little bit later, but blue crabs

are only available when

salinity conditions are right

in the marshes where the

cranes feed in the water.

And we'll talk about

that sensitive story.

But when the water is too saline

or too fresh, their food source

disappears and the birds have

no food on that coastal area.

Several of the crane species

are very tight relationships

to aquatic plants that only

grow under certain light

and water conditions, like

the Siberian cranes here.

Very vulnerable to changes

in water levels.

And other cranes which seem

more generalist in some ways,

like the sarus crane in India,

they feed on small wetlands,

but they're very

sensitive to changes

in agricultural practice

on the landscape.

They survive in harmony in some

of the most densely-populated

areas on Earth, such as in

Uttar Pradesh of India.

But they have a very close

relationship with the way the

land is used, and a lot of our

program working with those

birds, for example, is just

focused on that relationship

and traditional land uses.

So there's quite a tight

connection between cranes

and the landscape

that's very important,

and I'll draw that out

in some stories later.

The number two key issue behind

crane work is people come

together to work for

cranes for conservation

on five different continents.

The cranes really, we call it

through the charisma of cranes,

but cranes do draw people

together, and we see it time

and time again throughout.

We are one of the only

organizations that,

until recently, actually had an

active working group of North

and South Koreans working on crane conservation issues.

There are not many issues

on which those two sides

are working together,

as you can imagine.

But the Korean network and the

Korean crane meetings have

included, and we even until very

recently maintained a project

in North Korea doing wetland

conservation north of the DMZ.

The Siberian crane, we had a

major international program

trying to bring together people

working for the Siberian crane

that included Russia, China,

Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan,

people in Turkey.

It ranged across, included

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

So these are countries

that are often not working

in collaboration, and there

are exciting opportunities

that have emerged through

work with cranes.

Sometimes we bring

cranes into the marshes.

We bring people into the

marshes to work on the cranes.

Sometimes we go to the

top of tall buildings.

Sorry for another

plug for Chicago,

but I like to take

people to Chicago.

And so we range from the

marshes to tall buildings,

but we bring people together

and people come together to

work for these birds.

And one of the outcomes of that

are there are all these crane

festivals around the world, and

if you count up all of them,

there are literally

hundreds around the world,

and there's some really

big ones here in the US.

This is a particularly fun one.

This is in the mountain

kingdom of Bhutan.

And we started this festival

19 years ago with our

Bhutanese colleagues there,

and it's occurred now

every year for 19 years.

And kids flood in from

the surrounding hillsides

in this area.

They create these

crane costumes,

and they do all these

great dances and songs.

It goes on for a very long time.

It's like an eight-hour

festival or something.

It runs all day long,

and it celebrates

the migratory return

of the black-neck crane.

A lot of festivals like this.

And the third big idea, which I

think is fundamental to how we

work, is the understanding that

cranes are really flagships.

And when you work to save

cranes, you're working to save

a lot more than just cranes.

I like to say we're

all about cranes,

but we're really about

so much more than cranes.

Just some examples there, when

you think about all of the kind

of threats, the land threats

we're dealing with on the

landscape these days, invasive

species, problems with excessive

fires, with loss of wetlands,

with watershed degradation,

with big dams as

I'll talk about.

All of those problems are

crane conservation problems.

So we find ourselves working in

partnerships with organizations

that are working to solve big

conservation challenges, and in

doing so, the great thing is

that in a lot of places where we

work for cranes, there are

actually wonderful flagships

or umbrella species for lots

of other species that coexist.

Sometimes species that aren't

very charismatic and don't have

much of a conservation voice

that can benefit from work to

save landscapes, to protect

water or land around cranes.

So we find a lot of nice

carryover value, in some cases

for species that society may

care a lot less about.

And fundamentally, too,

as we find in many places,

crane conservation

can be about people

and human livelihoods

in many places.

And there are real

win/win scenarios.

We work to be the opposite of

the classic, for example the

spotted owls battles

of the 1990s,

where it was all

about birds or jobs.

You know, people or wildlife.

We completely reject these kind

of black and white scenarios

because we're looking and a lot

of conservation today is looking

to find those, the win/win

solutions where you can find a

place for birds within society,

within landscapes that feels a

lot more sustainable than when

we're pitted against each other.

So, a lot of times when

we're working for people,

we actually find ourselves working for livelihoods.

So I'm going to draw

out four stories.

I will tell you one from Asia,

one from Africa, and then one

from here at home kind of

spanning North America

for four of the 15 species

of cranes of the world.

I'll start with the sarus crane.

So I'm delighted to

have Triet here.

But don't correct me if I

get anything wrong here.

I'll start with this story.

This is one of my favorite

stories, and I did my master's

work here at the university

back in the '80s and Vietnam.

So this is really where I did

the first significant fieldwork

myself, and then eventually we

passed this work over to the

much more confident hands of

Triet and others who really

took this work and ran

with it for 20 more years

as our staff and our

program leaders.

But Vietnam, working in the

Mekong Delta of Vietnam,

this is the Mekong River

in this map,

and the Mekong is one of the famous rivers of the world.

I believe it's the ninth

biggest river of the world.

It's well known. It's known

for many things, especially

its exotic fish,

including, in the upper

right-hand corner, my favorite,

the giant dog-eating catfish.

Few things more exotic than a

giant dog-eating catfish.

But they have a lot

of amazing fish,

some of the best fisheries

in the world on the Mekong.

But it's also the home to

one of the rarest cranes

of the world: the sarus crane.

It is the tallest

flying bird on Earth.

You can see a nice pair of them up in the Crane Foundation

if you come and visit us.

They stand about six feet tall. They're enormous birds.

And this was a great

conservation story.

We got involved in Vietnam in

mid-1980s because of a report

that sarus cranes had

appeared in the Mekong Delta.

And at that time,

they hadn't been seen

throughout the war period.

Actually, dating back

to before the period of

French involvement,

they hadn't been seen in the

Vietnam part of the delta.

And a big reason for that

is much of the delta was

aggressively drained during the

war as part of the war effort.

And following the war, the

Vietnamese were very industrious

in settling a lot of the delta

and became one of the most

densely populated rural and very

aquatic areas of the world,

with people living on dikes

throughout that system.

So when we got involved, the

wetlands of the Mekong Delta

were disappearing very,

very fast.

A lot of the birds were

disappearing very fast.

And then we had this discovery,

and the discovery was by this

man right here who was a colonel

for the North Vietnamese who had

survived during the war in the

wetlands of then South Vietnam,

living off the resources

of South Vietnam,

including these big wetlands.

And he recognized the value of

these wetlands and wanted to set

them aside for their timber and

other products before the whole

of the delta was converted

over to development and rice.

And he fought very hard and is a

real conservation hero for this

area right here called Trom

Chin, which is about a 20,000

hectare or so wetland in the

heart of the Mekong Delta,

the biggest remaining

wetland in that area.

And we got very involved in

trying to support that effort in

the late 1980s to build water

gates to manage waters in that

system and try to create a

home for a small population

of these eastern sarus

cranes that have returned.

But the big story

came after that.

As much as we worked for Trom

Chin, there were relatively few

birds there and other areas more

critical for their survival.

And a particularly important

place was Phu My, on the border

with Cambodia, and that's

where the star of the story,

Tran Triet, and others got

involved to really demonstrate

real meaningful

conservation solutions.

The work at Phu My really

centered on a challenge that was

put forth by local government

there, which was that they said

we're going to convert this

wetland into an agricultural

area unless you can come up with

an alternative land use that's

more beneficial than

converting it to agriculture.

That was essentially

the challenge.

It was slated for development

and to be converted like much

of the delta had been

converted to rice agriculture.

Now, there was a wonderful

tradition in that area weaving

a tall wetland grass

called Lepironia,

to weave that into

traditional products.

They made these beautiful

mats and everything.

So that was an important

livelihood activity in Phu My.

But the problem was the mats

were used for sleeping and

drying rice, and they would

require about four days of labor

to construct and sold

for about 50 cents.

So these people were in

chronic poverty in this area.

But they were on a very

important wetland.

So the Lepironia Wetland

Conservation Project was

established just about

13 years ago in 2004.

And, really, the idea was to

find a sustainable solution that

involved building up from this

traditional use of these

handicrafts but finding ways to

use that work, both to generate

income for people and to

maintain wetland conservation

in the area and advance the

restoration of this marsh.

So a big part of it was scaling

up the traditional handicraft

production with a lot of quality

control, sustainably harvesting

the Lepironia, and then,

importantly, over time really

creating high quality bags that

began to sell not only in

Vietnam originally but out into

other markets in Asia and Europe

and to start to market them

worldwide for a higher value.

And an amazing thing started

happening through that work.

One is daily income for the

people involved in that work

started going up and up and up

and up with the project.

And, number two, the number of

households that were actually

benefiting from the project was

going up and up and up.

So it wasn't just a couple of

people originally involved

suddenly getting a windfall,

but a lot more people brought

into production and a lot

more money being made

in what was an extremely impoverished community.

And what's exciting about that

is they started generating

real money, not only for the

community but actually to

support the work of

restoring and maintaining

this wetland at Phu My.

So restoring and managing

Phu My wetland.

And so over time a significant

proportion of the budget for

the work at Phu My could

be generated by these

handicraft sales, by these

traditional products,

in addition to generating

income for people.

In many years, more than 50%,

sometimes as much as 80%

or more, of the project.

Now, that's one of those

illusive, for those of us in the

nonprofit sector constantly

raising money for the work we

do, this is one of those most

illusive of conservation ideas

of being able to really

locally fund work

so that you're not chronically dependent on fundraising, on grants, and everything else.

So really trying to generate a

significant part of the value

for the work and the

money to use to pay

for the work right on site,

so very exciting stuff.

And the sarus crane

numbers began to recover

with good management

of the wetland.

And as they were recovering in

this post-war period, from just

a few cranes back in the early

2000s now to 300 to 400 birds in

the area, I don't know what the latest count is, Triet.

Somewhere in that order

of birds out there.

So it's been very exciting to

see the recovery of the birds,

more income generated for caring

for the birds, and for the

wetlands and benefit

for the people there.

And most recently

it became Vietnam's

newest protected area,

the Phu My.

So it was sort of formerly

recognized that this alternative

land use served a higher value

than just being part of the

broad landscape being converted

to rice everywhere else.

So that was very exciting

getting-- but I think more

fundamentally it's just

a win/win all around.

The wetland is now

protected area.

It's more significantly

protected.

Sarus numbers are increasing,

and the health of the wetland,

more generally, is improving.

There's more income and more

employment, and now the

government has an alternative

to looking at land use.

You know, this project

in its exact state

can't be replicated everywhere.

We need different and innovative

ideas in different areas,

but it's a model for thinking

about different ways to use

the land that are

more sustainable

and wildlife-friendly, so I think that's very exciting.

And now I'll embarrass Triet to

say that it's also won several

awards, and I really give a

shout-out to Triet and the team

in Vietnam for what I think

has been one of those

really very illusive examples

of where we can really have

conservation and livelihoods

on the landscape

and really see both

improving together.

And it's very exciting to me.

I'm going to tell another

story on a big scale too.

I've done a lot of work in

the Zambezi River Basin.

That's very close

to home for me.

I did my doctoral work here on

the Zambezi and went and lived

there with my family for a

couple different long stints,

including about four years in

this area down here near the

Zambezi Delta in Gorongosa

National Park.

And a lot of my focus has been

on water in the Zambezi.

Water management and water

solutions in this basin.

And Zambezi is one of these,

another vast river system.

Like the Mekong, it's really the

lifeline of southern Africa.

It's the major river system

across southern Africa.

And it is the lifeline

for millions of people

who depend on this river.

And if you stare at this photo

long enough, you'll find about

20 different water uses:

cooking, cleaning, bathing,

everything imaginable is

provided right on and directly

by this river along its

length from Angola and Zambia

all the way down to

the Mozambican coast.

It's also sort of legendary

home, most of the African

elephants of southern Africa

are in the Zambezi River Basin.

A lot of the African

buffalo are there.

A lot of other

important species.

And it's kind of a who's who

list of wonderful and exotic

places to go for your

winter or summer vacation.

Really wonderful places

all supported by

the waters and land

of the Zambezi.

Well, it's also home to this

species, the wattled crane.

Almost as big as the sarus I

was talking about a minute ago.

And most of the

world's wattled cranes

occur in this river basin.

There's about 8,000, roughly,

remaining in the world.

About 6,000 of those are within

the Zambezi River Basin system.

So it's very important to

the future of this bird

and a lot of other animals,

like elephants and bison

and hippos and many,

many others.

So we got interested, as I

mentioned before, I'm a

hydrologist, we got interested

in this basin about 20 years ago

because we were trying to

explain this or understand this

fundamental system which is

that, on the one hand, it's

super rich in wildlife and

diverse, or at least had been,

and, on the other hand, it had

two of the biggest dams in

Africa on it, two of the biggest

dams in the world on it,

and very intensive water

resources development.

So the Zambezi has really been

slated to not only be the water

lifeline of southern Africa

but also the energy pipeline,

energy source of

southern Africa.

So Kariba Dam, which was the

first dam to be viewable from

outer space when it was built

because the reservoir is so big,

was built and Cahora Bassa Dam.

Two enormous, enormous dams,

Hoover Dam kind of sized dams, were built.

And the whole of the river was

slated for very intensive energy

production as well as some

other less promoted benefits

like flood control

and water supply.

So Zambezi hydropower became a

big priority, but the problem

was no one was really paying

attention to what was happening

below all of these dams.

It was great to be generating

power and the power is needed in

the region, there's no question

about that, but there's no free

lunch and a lot of cost came

with that production as well.

We were starting to read the

signs for the Zambezi Delta and

the lower Zambezi saying, wow,

on the one hand, it has these

very rich wildlife populations

and, on the other hand,

we know nothing about what's

happening in this system

and the signs are not good.

This was a fisheries study

done in the '80s that showed

a lot of things in massive decline very quickly

after these huge

dams were built.

So got involved to try and

answer some fundamental

questions which is really trying

to address how this river has

changed over time from these

dams and what solutions are

possible starting with a

crane lens and working up.

And there's been very dramatic

changes in the system to start.

This, if you could see the full

length of this bridge, it was 29

spans across this bridge when

it was built in the 1920s.

It was a major river crossing

project for its time.

The river today is really

subdivided into small channels,

much of the floodplain

is dried up

and under regulation

for hydropower,

it's just a very changed system.

Water stays in the channel

through the year, it doesn't

spill into the floodplain, and

as a result most of the old

channels of the floodplain are

not vegetated over and dried out

and the floodplain is quite

dry for much of the year.

Much, much drier than

it was historically.

Well, we started this big

program and there's really just

a couple of take-home points

with all this very busy slide,

which is we wanted to

understand what was the impact

of all this river

change on the system.

What did it mean in terms

of the biodiversity,

the cranes and other critters, and also human livelihoods.

And then try to answer

some fundamental questions

if indeed the impacts were

as serious as we thought.

One is, is there enough

water available to reverse

the impacts with

different management?

What are the trade-offs among

people who need that water?

And, basically, how much

water does the river need?

And how can you get it?

How much can you get?

So we formed a really unique

partnership with the energy

authorities in the main

countries of the Zambezi,

Zambia, Zimbabwe, and

Mozambique, the power-generating

authorities, to try and tackle

this question and try

and simulate a new way

of looking at these dams.

And we started with

the wattled crane.

We were looking at unique

aspects of its biology

and its relationship to water

and how it was affected by

the change in flooding.

But we quickly scaled up.

I mean, to be honest, as

much as people loved cranes,

there's no way we were

going to get involved

in energy policy in the

region through cranes.

It was going to take

a lot more than that.

And, really, what we focused on

was trying to build a bigger and

bigger case for rethinking how

water was used in this basin,

moving to other wildlife,

birds and mammals,

and ultimately to

people in the system.

So, as we scaled up, we looked

at these tight relationships,

not only of cranes to water but

some of the more aquatic

antelope that depend on water,

and then, significantly, getting

involved with social scientists,

the economists are trying to

quantify the economic

relationships to that same water

in terms of fisheries,

agriculture, different resources

that are river dependent,

and prawns,

in the case of Mozambique

off the coast.

So we were trying to solve

this big puzzle, which was

how had the water changed

and what was the economic

implication of that change and

what could we do about it?

Well, on top of all of that, an

emerging picture was developing

over the same period of time

that the Zambezi itself

was under a lot of threat.

From climate change, we've done

a lot of work on that basin

as the worst, having the

worst climate change

among the major river

basins of Africa.

Some of the projections

of runoff reduction

are very dramatic,

very concerning.

I've been involved in

modeling work on that

for a while, as well.

Just looking on its impact on

hydropower and water resources,

it became very clear that

not only were we dealing

with a system that had been

fundamentally changed by dams

but was going to get worse in

the future and water management

was going to become even more

critical issue in this basin.

So, as I said, we started with

wattled cranes, and we looked

specifically at how you could

restore, by getting more water

into the system, the floodplain

for wattled cranes, targeting

their main food source

and trying to understand

how to get water back

into the system for them.

We did a lot of work.

On that, a very dear

friend of mine, Carlos Bento,

did his master's degree,

he's a Mozambican guy,

did his master's degree

on this work.

And we tried to pull that

picture together of what the

recovery value would be for

wattled cranes from a change

in water management

that I'll talk about.

Then we started to scale up and

look at not only other wildlife

but different activities,

and we started to see

some interesting patterns.

The people that were sort of

agricultural economists said

that the value of getting small

floods back into this system,

if they could be generated, was

worth tens of millions in terms

of agriculture along the lower

Zambezi Basin in terms of waters

that would flood riverbanks

and floodplain areas

that had been cropped

that were now abandoned.

So that got very interesting.

Then the fisheries people got

involved and told us that with

the restoration of a moderate

flood back into the system, we

were looking at 30,000 to 50,000

metric tons a year of restored

fisheries, and this was the most

important source of protein

for people down in

the coastal area.

So, enormous value potential

reflooding that area.

And we even saw that the couple

of years that we were working

there when big floods actually

happened because of very heavy,

heavy rains in those years,

people immediately came and the

fisheries responded and there

was a very direct response.

So we could see that potential

if we could get water

back in more regularly.

And some great work

actually supported by

the shrimp industries

along the coast,

which were still wild-caught shrimp industries.

They were an alternative to

those intensive shrimp farms

that are developing,

for example,

in Thailand and

the Philippines.

They had a wild-caught shrimp

industry completely dependent

on natural flows in the Zambezi.

And they said, hey, if you can

get a more natural flood pulse

back in that's not so highly

regulated by power production,

we are looking at a gain of

10 to 20 million per annum

just in coastal prawn or

shrimp harvest in that system.

And so they were very excited

about this work as well.

And, as we pulled all these

pieces together, we got a very

interesting picture emerge,

which is that if you take

the economic value of all

the different water-linked

activities in the lower Zambezi

without even putting an economic

value on wildlife, just ignoring

wildlife valuation, which can be

done but it's very difficult to

do, if you just work on really

market economic stuff, the total

value of water use in the lower

Zambezi was actually higher than

the value of the hydropower

being generated in the system, so that was pretty dramatic.

Now, we were naive enough to

think that they were going to

take down these dams and

change over to hydropower,

but it did create

and argument like this.

Can hydropower be

part of the story

and not the

only story in town?

And that's what we began to

drive for, which was just a way

of looking more

holistically at this river.

And then we began this very long

odyssey, for more than 10 years,

of working with these water

engineers to try and normalize

the idea of doing small flood

pulses out of the system.

It turns out that there is

adequate water in the system.

I'll spare you about two

chapters of my PhD on that.

But there is adequate water

in the system to actually

generate floods down into

this system with only about

a 3% to 4% reduction in hydropower generation.

If you do more significant

reductions in hydropower, which

were not really politically

attainable, you saw even bigger

gains, but we were able to put

significant value on getting,

on small reductions

of hydropower

and try to put that

puzzle together.

So that was very, very exciting

to us and move into, like I

said, a strong political stage

of working with communities and

authorities, and this was the

former president of Mozambique.

We presented this work and tried

to really create a new model for

thinking about this river and to

actually generate prescribed

floods into this system by

taking water that has spilled at

the wrong time of year to empty

out reservoir capacity and

redirect that water to get

spilled in the floodplain

season, in the flooding season,

when it was most needed for the

river and for the delta

system downstream, so a lot

of our focus began in trying

to retarget that water.

So that's been an exciting

but still very ongoing story.

You know, the fun part for me is

it started with an exploration

of cranes more than 20 years ago

and kind of blossomed into

people from many disciplines

working together to try

and build a case for water

and rethink this water.

And it's certainly not to the

point where it's normalized as a

practice in the Zambezi, but it

is, we now have a system where,

other than drought years, we're

getting water releases out of

the dams, and we're working more

and more to push for water in

even more critical seasons when

it's really needed downstream.

So, it's just an ongoing process

of trying to just, to really

rethink water in that basin

for all the species

and all the people that need it.

One last story, we'll go

to a local story now,

one that's probably a little more familiar to some of you:

the story of

the whooping crane.

The whooping crane is a

great recovery story.

And, actually, I'm glad you

mentioned, Tom, sandhill cranes

because sandhill cranes are

also a great recovery story.

I mean, they have recovered

from incredibly low numbers

to great numbers today.

But the whooping crane,

even more dramatic.

They were never abundant,

the whooping crane.

We don't think there were

ever the kind of huge numbers

that we had of

Canada geese or

other big migratory water fowl,

but they had a big range.

Yeah, they had a big range

across here, historically.

And they, historically, wintered

in a few different places.

Down into Mexico here, along the

coast of Texas, up to Louisiana,

very significant, and then

along the Ace Basin in parts

of the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

Huge, huge and very unknown

range up in the wilderness,

really, of Canada migrating up

through the middle of the US.

So we knew that they were

nesting out in wetlands

in tall grass prairie

but never abundant.

Then came the period of

intensive hunting that we know

about that occurred at the turn

of the century before last,

back when we lost a lot of our

egrets and a lot of our birds

in the wild due to very

intensive hunting.

Lost prairie chicks and

of course, most famously,

our passenger pigeons

during that period.

And whooping cranes were

targeted in huge numbers,

and they all but disappeared.

And by 1941 there were

15 whooping cranes

known in the wild.

They had been hunted right

about down to extinction.

And the few that

remained were down

in Aransas National

Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

They could have, the

ones that remained

could have been in Mexico.

They could have been

anywhere along the

coast over to Louisiana

They could have been

in the Ace Basin

where they wintered,

but they chose Aransas.

Not a great choice,

but we'll talk about that,

but an interesting challenge.

So that's where they ended up,

and that is where

they are GPSed,

as we say, to go.

So these are birds that are

programmed to go down

and spend their winter in Texas,

and that's what they do.

Not until 1954 was the nesting

area of the birds even

discovered up in Wood Buffalo,

way, way up in northern Canada,

and that's because it's an

incredibly remote area.

Really the birds are quite

secure, other than maybe some

very long-term

possible scenarios

with changing climate

up in that region.

By and large, they're

really pretty secure

up in that area in this

remote wilderness.

But to get from there, where

they are in the summer, to where

they go down for the winter,

they have a very long migration.

They go through an incredibly

long migration corridor of about

2,500 miles, including passing

over, entirely passing over the

tar sands area that's up there,

which is really Mordor,

if you're a "Lord of

the Rings" fan.

It's really a very

challenged area up there.

They migrate over there,

and they also have to navigate

a lot of power lines

on this very, very long

migration that they do.

They stop a little bit in

Saskatchewan, Manitoba area,

and then they come

down through here.

They pass through the Platte

River in Nebraska, and then

eventually down to the coast

of Texas where they winter.

And they're at beautiful Aransas

National Wildlife Refuge

where they're well

protected right now.

I know some of you have been

there, and it's a beautiful,

beautiful place, but it's also a

very, very challenging place to

be any wildlife, and especially

to be a very water-

and land-dependent

bird, coastal.

This part of Texas is

one of the most rapid

developing areas of the country.

I know that censuses over the

last two 10-year censuses,

they've added four congressional

representatives in this area.

That gives you some sense

of the kind of growth

that's happening down there.

And they're very dependent on

the waters that come out of the

Guadalupe tide to Austin and to

San Antonio and their water use.

So the interesting thing about

whooping cranes that make them

somewhat unique compared to

a lot of wintering birds

is that they stay in pairs,

in strong pairs

on their wintering grounds.

A lot of birds don't.

And they stay very territorial

on their wintering birds,

and a lot of birds

don't do that.

For example, a lot of our small

songbirds will come up here

to nest, but then go

down and congregate

in bigger numbers down, for example, in the Americas.

And whooping cranes stay as

pairs, and the reason they do

that is they come down to Texas

and they defend territories that

are rich in blue crabs and

they feed on these blue crabs.

And blue crabs are triggered to

come into these coastal marshes

that the cranes depend on

when you get freshwater inflows

from the Guadalupe River or San

Antonio River and they mix with

the coastal saltwater and make

this intermediate kind of

brackish condition which is

suitable to crabs, the crabs

come in to breed in there, and

then the cranes have this very

tasty meal of blue crabs.

And blue crabs are very tasty,

and they come in and they feast

on them and it's about 80% to

90% of their diet down there,

and then they also eat some

mussels and other sea life.

So it's a really important food

source for them, very tied to

having adequate land to feed, to

fish for these crabs, and then

adequate water to come in

and get that right salinity.

And that same salinity

also drives this coastal

economy for Texas,

and there's a lot of advocates

for freshwater on the coast that

depend on sea life, seafood

industries that are generated

by those freshwater pulses

that come into those marshes.

Unfortunately, though, this is

also, you know, a very, very

intensively used

part of the world.

It's one of the major

petro chemical production

areas of the country.

It's where a lot of the

pipelines that are being debated

and coming down through the

country ultimately

end up with fuels down there.

And one of the most bizarre

things you can do down at

Aransas, if anyone's been down

there, is you can look at these

whooping cranes, these fragile

recovering birds, and literally

sort of look over the shoulder,

look over the top of these birds

and see huge barges of benzine

floating down the river,

all kind of in the same scene.

It's really an amazing landscape

and all sort of encompassing

all of the challenges

of conservation.

So, very big challenges

down there.

There's nuclear power

development in the area, and

there is drought and there is

what appears to be prolonged and

increasing drought, likely due

to shifting climates in this

region, and tremendous water

use demands from San Antonio,

Victoria, and other basins.

All of this really came to a

head back in 2009, 2010, and

2011 when Texas had droughts

that were so severe that they

had to create a new category of

drought just to name them.

You'll see this drought here,

there used to be, you know,

moderate, severe,

and extreme drought.

And then they had to come up

with a whole new category

of drought called exceptional

because it went, you know,

basically, as you heard

in the news back then,

beyond what they'd

ever experienced.

And this was the

picture by 2011.

This new category of drought,

exceptional drought,

was encompassing the whole state

and actually spilling into

Oklahoma and New Mexico

and other areas.

So, really, really extreme

drought experienced only

on rare occasion in the last

hundred years and beyond.

And, as a result of that and

result of water management

decisions in the basin at that

time, essentially no freshwater

whatsoever came

down to the coast.

There was no food in the coast

and whooping cranes started

dying off, and we lost about 10,

roughly 9% of the whooping crane

population in the

winter of 2009-2010,

apparently due to lack of water

and starvation combination

down on the coast.

About 23 birds disappeared

from the population.

And so this started the

water wars of the coast

that went on from there.

We got involved in a lot of

different actions to try to

secure more water for the coast

of Texas and try to find some

balance in what is an extremely

difficult situation to work in.

And fundamentally, we knew that

what the future of whooping

cranes was about was the future

of this coastal way of life.

Was there going to be political

will to continue to support

water getting down to the coast

of Texas or was it really going

to be a new reality where this

water was just going to all be,

water story was going to be told

in the upper part of the basin?

And that's really what we've

been working for, for the last

six, seven years down there,

trying to secure enough land for

whooping cranes to recover and

enough water to nurture those

lands and maintain this

population and, in doing so,

hopefully support the

rich diversity of life

that depends on these wetlands.

And we've been approaching

this in many different ways,

including getting very active on

water politics, very involved in

modeling land availability and

trying to guide land purchases

as we find willing sellers down

in the area or conservation

people willing to do

conservation easements, and also

trying to do a lot of

in-classroom education about the

value of these estuaries and

the future of them in the area.

So creating interactive games

and models that are used down in

the area to try and just raise

awareness about the health

of these systems and

their need for water.

So the future of whooping cranes

really centers on that Aransas

wintering population and its

survival on its long migration.

And our goal through the

whooping crane recovery plan

is to get to a thousand

birds in the wild.

There's currently about

330 in the wild

that have come up from those 15. So that's good.

That's grown from 15 to 3--

Let's say hoping to hit 350

this year in about 60 years.

So it's no Canada geese story.

It's a slow, methodical recovery

of gain some, lose some.

But because of all those

challenges with the birds

in Texas and the unfortunate

area where the birds ended up,

we've also shifted a lot

of attention to trying to

establish a second self-sustaining population.

Actually, two self-sustaining

populations, ultimately,

independent of these

Canada/Texas birds.

And, really, you can think of

it as an insurance policy.

If, for example,

the BP oil spill had

occurred further up along the

coast, that would have wiped out

their breeding ground or their

wintering ground area.

If one of these big benzine

marshes runs aground in the

winter and spills throughout

that area, the population of a

lot of wildlife there is

extremely vulnerable to

those kind of changes.

So the reintroductions that you

are aware of probably here in

Wisconsin are really a part

of that insurance policy.

So we formed this

partnership back in 2000

called the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

It's US Fish and Wildlife, it's

our state DNR, and it's private

initiatives, most

notably ourselves, the

International Crane Foundation, and Operation Migration,

who flew the birds

down for many years.

That was the sort of

core partnership that

was formed here.

And there were a lot of great

successes in this project.

Really successful captive

breeding programs were

established at the

International Crane Foundation,

at Calgary Zoo, at Patuxent.

I'll address questions

about Patuxent later--

if you've heard those

in the news-- but they are undergoing big changes.

But captive breeding of

whoopers, very successful.

That's the starting

point of all this.

Forming whooping crane pairs in

captivity and learning to teach,

learning to raise chicks.

Basically we developed a custom

rearing and parent-rearing

set of techniques to pair

the birds for release.

So we would hatch chicks in

captivity and then raise those

chicks with the parents to

get them suitable, we hoped,

to get back out in the wild.

That part also has

been very successful

in trying to

raise those birds.

And we first set up shop in

Necedah National Wildlife

Refuge, as many of you know.

That was really the target to

get the first hundred birds

out into the wild and hopefully

get them out and breeding.

And they were reared and then

methodically flown from

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

all the way down to Florida

on these beautiful

ultralight flights.

Some of you remember the first

flight went down in 2000,

was met by Jimmy Carter down in

Georgia on its way down, flew

down ultimately to a couple of

national wildlife refugees,

Chassahowitzka and St. Marks

down in Florida.

When the birds were first flown

down with the ultralights,

they had to stop every 30 miles.

So I don't know if anybody's

ever driven to Florida

with small kids, it was

kind of like that.

Every 30 miles, stopping, stopping, stopping.

They had to do this and they

had to find suitable locations

to overnight every 30 miles

all the way to Florida.

So, very painstaking.

Well, the great part of the

story is they did this,

flew the birds all the way down,

and then what did the birds do?

They flew all the way

back to Wisconsin

that first following

spring in three days.

Shot straight back up to

Wisconsin, didn't use any of the

sites they were taught and were

back up there three days later.

So they had a mind of their own

and a path of their own that had

nothing to do with what they

were taught on their way down,

and then they were right

back up into the region.

And that's happened

year after year.

So one of the interesting things

about the flights is the initial

cohort of birds was flown down

each year, but then, from then

on, after that one and only

flight, they perpetually

migrated back and forth and

back and forth every year.

It's a pretty great story

and year after year.

And because of that, we're able

to do other innovative things,

like just putting birds

out with other birds

that are already out and getting

them migrating that way.

So we developed a second

technique called direct autumn,

released to complement the

Operation Migration flights and

get even more birds out and get

birds out on the landscape.

And that was a big part

of that story.

And then, at the same time we

started that second of the two

populations I mentioned down at

White Lake Marsh in Louisiana,

which is an incredibly diverse

water bird water, and also,

if you remember from that map,

actually one of the places

whooping cranes could have

ended up if they had

been a little bit more east

in their original survival

of that final 15 that made it.

So it was a good site.

So there's release pens

down there in Louisiana,

and I can tell you more

stories about that

during questions later,

if you like.

But the birds are now,

there's now two populations

that have been established,

one up here in Wisconsin.

It's actually morphed a bit to

the east, which I can explain,

over time, but basically

here in Wisconsin,

and the other down in Louisiana.

And what's the story now of

whooping crane recovery,

we like to think?

Patience!

We've put more than 120 birds

out on the landscape

in Wisconsin.

We yet to have a single

chick that has fledged

and made it to adulthood

and had a chick of its own.

And that is the holy

grail of reintroduction.

Getting the birds out in the

wildlife, getting birds out in

the wild, teaching them to pair,

to form nice pairs, to migrate,

to traverse these big distances,

to safely select habitats,

to do all that stuff.

They're doing that.

To form pairs, to

have chicks lay eggs.

They're doing that.

Then it's the egg-to-chick to

chick-growing-up-and-surviving

story is the gauntlet that we

are trying to get past now,

and that's been really

the great challenge

of whooping crane reintroduction.

And we've tried many different

things to try and get there.

We have the curse

of the black flies.

We discovered the Necedah has

this extraordinary population of

avian specific black flies that

sit on the eggs whenever the

bird lifts up to kind

of ruffle its feathers

before laying back down.

These flies swarm onto these

eggs and then bit the bird

from underneath while

it's on the eggs,

essentially driving

the birds crazy.

So we had very high rate of

nest abandonment of eggs.

We had to overcome that by

moving east toward Horicon

and try and refocus at Horicon

where, miraculously,

there's almost none

of these flies.

Just the distance from

Necedah to Horicon.

There's still black flies but

they're not these avian ones.

So the things you learn on

the fly as you do this work.

The curse of poor predator

avoidance, this is another one.

The birds just do not seem to

be able to teach their chicks

adequately to avoid predators.

We don't know if it's because

there is sort of a super

abundance of raccoons, opossums,

you know, you name it, skunks,

on the landscape today.

Plenty of coyotes, it could be

that, or it could be that

something in that initial

captive rearing of the birds to

get them in the wild is just not

giving them adequate predator

avoidance skills, even though

we work with predators

with the birds to try and

teach that avoidance.

That could be part

of the problem.

And, as many of you

have probably heard,

we also have the

curse of the shootings.

More than 10 of the birds

we've been reintroduced--

We've reintroduced into

the wild have been shot.

Actually, more than 20 all told,

including some of

the wild flock.

And we're trying to

understand these.

We're trying to push for

stronger sentencing for people

who are caught and trying

to reverse this sort of

incomprehensible shooting

of these big birds.

All of it which is

done by vandals.

It's not hunters

shooting the birds.

It's bandits, people

going out and doing it

for kicks, basically.

One person we've

actually managed

to get arrested for it

and prison time.

Most people, sometimes

the fines are a buck.

So the fines have been

all over the map for this

but that's clearly--

So we're in a holding

pattern of patience.

We've put the birds out.

We're still reintroducing

birds in Louisiana.

We have a fledged chick

this year in Louisiana.

So we're excited that that

bird will last and come up.

But ultimately we have to solve

these conservation challenges

if we're going to get this

reintroduced population

back on the landscape.

And to me the

fundamental issue is

keep them wild in

the first place.

There's nothing more difficult

than doing reintroductions.

And the best way to do

reintroductions is

by never having to do

them in the first place

and that's by

keeping things wild.

And that's why we're putting so

much attention in Texas and

really so much attention in

everywhere in the world

where you have populations

that are under threat.

It's trying to keep these birds

wild in the first place so we

don't have to go to these

extreme measures of dressing up

like puppets and flying

them behind airplanes

and teaching them how to get from across our landscape.

So that's really my

take-home message.

So, to me, you know,

why do we all stay?

Why has Triet been

with us for so long?

Why have I been with the Crane

Foundation for so long?

What keeps us?

What keeps this crazy

group of craniacs going

all over the world that are doing this crane work?

I think it's really about

the way they inspire us

to solve big

conservation challenges.

Keeping cranes on the

landscape is really

about keeping our

landscapes healthy.

I think that's very exciting and

very motivating, and I do think

that we're working, you know,

beyond cranes but for people

and for the diversity

of life on Earth.

And I think that's the crane

story that I like to tell.

I know many of you have

been up to Baraboo.

Please come visit us.

We are doing huge renovations

in the next two years

really aimed at telling these stories for each of the birds.

So we're going to be drawing out

and doing bigger exhibits

that really draw the cultural

connections between the birds

everywhere that we

work around the world.

I'm very excited about that,

kind of telling these

conservation stories

more to our visitors.

And for those who have

experienced the Platte

and the sandhills on the Platte

or some of these global

crane adventures,

I can't emphasize

them enough.

I think they're just amazing.

Ginny here went to Ethiopia

with me and survived,

barely, but we made it.

[laughing]

There are amazing

crane places

that we go around the world,

and they lead us to

wonderful places

and great opportunities.

So please join us.

And thank you.

Thanks for your time.

[applause]

Share this page