On a cold and dark December morning, several members of the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and I pick our way through fields a few miles outside the town of Weining, in southwestern China. The ground is rutted and sticky with mud; we would have an easier walk if we could wait until the sun is up. But the cranes start their days early.
Ahead, we can make out two species: Eurasian cranes, and black-necked cranes. They are gathered in a shallow marsh perhaps a quarter of a mile off, erect figures through wisps of fog. At their feet, the marsh bustles with ducks and geese, including the rare bar-headed goose. Even this far away, we can hear the honks and squawks and rustlings of restless birds.
The sky brightens, and the first chevrons of ducks and geese lift off, their wings whistling. A few minutes later, the cranes, too, start to leave – first four, then five, then ten or twelve or more. Their flight is graceful and lean and their occasional calls carry far. After 45 minutes all the birds are gone, heading to farmlands and marshes at Cao Hai to forage for the day.
Cao Hai (“Sea of Grass”) is a small freshwater lake that sits more than 7,000 feet above sea level in Guizhou province, near the border with Yunnan province. It is uniformly shallow; with an average depth of less than seven feet, the bottom is nearly always visible. The plants and fields that surround its shores support more than 70,000 wintering waterbirds, including the rare black-necked crane that is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. An estimated 10,000 of the species are left, although no one knows the precise number since most breed in remote regions of Tibet. Whatever their total numbers, roughly 1,000 black-necked cranes winter here.
That there are any cranes left at all is somewhat remarkable, given Cao Hai’s turbulent history. In 1958, as part of the Great Leap Forward, the lake was partially drained to convert what was considered wasteland into farmland. During the Cultural Revolution it was drained again, almost completely this time. Waterbirds do not have much use for places with little or no water, and their numbers dwindled. By the late 1970s, only 30 or so cranes wintered at Cao Hai.
The lake’s shrinking had unforeseen political consequences as well. Guizhou is a hard mountainous region, and the lake bottom wasn’t made up of fecund earth as was assumed. Instead, the exposed ground was rocky, the soils largely infertile. Heavy windstorms would sweep through the region, causing huge dust storms and carrying away what soils there were. Officials in neighboring areas blamed the drainage for outbreaks of pests and higher seasonal temperatures.
In the face of mounting pressure, the Guizhou provincial government decided to re-flood the basin. By 1982, Cao Hai had been restored to about half its former size, enough so that the black-necked cranes and other birds came back in modest but steadily increasing numbers. Their return caught the attention of the Chinese government, and in 1985 Cao Hai was named a provincial nature reserve. (Currently, there are more than 2,500 reserves in China, covering about 15 percent of country’s land area.)
As can happen when there is rush to preserve areas without much thought for social ramifications, a new set of conflicts arose. The cranes were not the only residents with an interest in Cao Hai. Fourteen villages and the Weining County seat are spread around the lake. Weining County is the poorest in Guizhou, itself one of the poorest provinces in China. Most of the 25,000 citizens who live within the reserve boundaries are subsistence farmers surviving on less than $100 a year.
Although the soils were less than ideal for farming, when the lake was drained villagers had made use of the new land to grow potatoes, corn, and other crops. When government officials decided to refill Cao Hai, they didn’t bother to tell the villagers their plan. Most villages lost 30 to 70 percent of their arable land when the lake was refilled. With no way to feed their families, people made do with what was at hand. They turned to fishing. They continued to reclaim small parcels of wetland to farm on. They hunted waterfowl and cranes that fed on their grain. They cut down the forests on the hillsides surrounding the lake, further hastening soil erosion.
Now that the lake was a nature reserve, however, all these acts were illegal. Laws were enforced inconsistently, but at times dramatically. Reserve staff burned villagers’ fishing nets and confiscated poached fish. Angry confrontations were frequent. Some of the reserve staff received death threats. Others were badly beaten.
It was into this charged atmosphere that Jim Harris, now a vice president with the Crane Foundation, arrived, in 1991. “I remember the first time I went,” he says. “The lake was so covered with fishnets that boats could barely move, much less cranes.”
Harris was at the end of a visit to sites throughout southwest China, searching for a place to try a newer approach to conservation – one that addressed not only the needs of cranes, but also the needs of people who lived around them. Cao Hai, he thought, would be a good spot for a pilot project. It was small and the reserve staff, after years of strife, was willing to try almost anything that would make their job easier.
In 1993, Harris and ICF developed a poverty alleviation scheme with the Trickle Up Program, a microfinance organization. They started modestly at first, giving small loans (usually $100) to the area’s poorest families. The families could use the grants to start small businesses, on the condition that whatever they did would not harm wildlife. It was the first time most villagers had access to capital. Some used the money to sell crafts or food in the city. “It was a way for people to get business experience,” Harris says. “From a conservation perspective, we hoped it would also let people earn income without hurting the land so much.”
The program was a turning point for Cao Hai. At the time, no other project in China’s nature reserves tried to involve local people in conservation efforts. “As you can imagine, it had been very top-down,” Harris says. “We wanted to change the relationship between the reserve and the local community.”
Two years later, the program was expanded into something more autonomous called a community trust fund. Villagers formed groups to manage and distribute their own funds and use the interest generated for larger projects, like road repair. Financial records were public, which helped ensure a high repayment rate. Reserve staff helped to oversee the operation. Relations between the reserve and the villages thawed.
The program has continued to run for nearly 20 years. Currently, more than 15 community trust funds provide access to loans for nearly 491 families. For its part, ICF last gave money to the trust fund four years ago. “We check in now and then,” Harris says, “but they’re running it mostly on their own now, and what they’ve done is really impressive.”
But the future of Cao Hai is, like many environmental stories in China, both uncertain and unsettled. Although the microloans were intended to create business opportunities that did not depend on resource extraction, in many cases villagers used the program to supplement their own income rather than end destructive practices. People still farm, still fish. As the reserve grows more popular, county officials have pushed to increase tourism. “It can create a lot of tension with conservation work,” says Li Fengshan, ICF’s China programs director. “There will always be pressure to use resources.”
Still, there are more black-necked cranes now than ever before and the global population is stable, perhaps even increasing. Li is working with other groups in China to monitor black-necked cranes near their elusive breeding grounds on the western plateau. “Cranes are the umbrella,” Harris says. “We like the cranes, they like the cranes – that’s the starting point. We didn’t think the welfare of people and the welfare of the cranes were separate issues.”
Eric Wagner last wrote for the Journal about the continuing plight of the spotted owl.
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