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Mekong Delta province plans on recreating endangered crane flock

By Ngoc Tai   September 15, 2022 | 06:00 am PT
Mekong Delta province plans on recreating endangered crane flock
A flock of red-crowned cranes in Tram Chim National Park in 2016. Photo by Nguyen Van Hung
Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta is working on a plan to save red-crowned cranes from extinction by creating a new flock with eggs imported from Thailand.

Le Quoc Phong, Dong Thap's Party chief, said within this month, a delegation from the province will travel to Thailand to continue an ongoing discussion on a plan to transport red-crowned crane eggs to Vietnam.

If an agreement is reached, Dong Thap could get the eggs within this year, he said.

The eggs will then be hatched at Tram Chim National Park in the province.

The park, which spans 7,500 hectares as a designated wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, will be prepared to raise and train the hatchlings following guided protocol.

After a few years, the cranes will be released to live on their own to breed and reproduce naturally to create a new population.

The plan aims to release 10 young cranes into the park each year for 10 years.

It will mark the first time that Dong Thap plans to hatch red-crowned cranes.

The park in Dong Thap Muoi, or the Plain of Reeds, a wetland straddling Long An and Dong Thap provinces, is famous as a natural habitat for the large East Asian red-crowned crane, one of the rarest in the world and classified as "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The birds usually arrive from Cambodia in December and stay until May, when it is the dry season in southern Vietnam.

They come to forage and mate prior to the onset of rain and floods.

Until 1980, thousands of them used to arrive every winter, but in recent years that story has changed with only a couple dozens visiting the park at most each year.

In the past decade, fewer and fewer cranes have visited the park, with 14-23 arrivals recorded each year in 2014-2016, three in 2017, nine in 2018, and 11 in 2019.

So far this year, none have arrived, just like in 2020, according to data from the park.

Tran Triet, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the International Crane Foundation (ICF), said 50 years ago, the red-crowned cranes disappeared in Thailand completely and this nation has spent as long as 30 years to recreate the flock.

Thai experts have spent almost two decades studying the process of incubating the cranes as well as cultivating an organic rice field to feed them. Some of them had traveled to the U.S. to learn about artificial insemination.

Two experts monitor a crane in Thailand. Photo by International Crane Foundation

Two experts check on a crane in Thailand. Photo by the International Crane Foundation

"It is more difficult for incubated cranes to reproduce compared to those born and raised in nature. Artificial insemination will ensure the cranes are created from the healthy genes to create healthy cranes," Triet said, adding that the insemination process costs up to tens of millions of U.S. dollars.

Until now, Thailand's project to raise cranes has been successful. In the past 10 years, almost 200 incubated cranes have been released into nature and these days, they are able to reproduce on their own.

"The issue is whether Vietnam could have the determination to stick to the plan because it might take up to 10 years or longer to establish a healthy herd of cranes in nature," said Triet.

For the plan to work, experts said the first task that needs to be done is for Tram Chim to stop storing water all year round. For years, the park has stored water to fight forest fires.

Nguyen Huu Thien, an expert on Mekong Delta's ecology, said the park needs to have its seasonal hydrological regime maintained as it is.

"Storing water throughout the year like that leaves no living environment for the cranes," said Thien.

In the three years from 2009 to 2011, Dong Thap applied a pilot regulation on hydrological management for Tram Chim with the support of the World Wide Fund.

The organization recommends maintaining the right water level during the dry season in the park, which has allowed grasslands (including reeds, the main food of cranes) to recover from 800 hectares to 2,700 hectares. The measure had helped bring the number of cranes from 48 in 2001 to 84, 85, and 94 in those years.

In the three-year period of piloting the plan, there were six to nine fires in the park that destroyed 15-388 hectares of grasslands and cajuput forests each year, but in all cases, they recovered quickly.

But after the trial phase, the project was stopped due to barriers in hydrological management for wetland ecosystems in a special forest system.

Duong Van Ni, an expert on biodiversity in the Mekong Delta, said that it is urgent to preserve and restore the inherent habitat of cranes in Tram Chim, in addition to making plans for cultivating organic rice fields in surrounding communes.

"The top priority is recovering the living environment for Tram Chim," he said.

Ni added that the cooperation program with Thailand will succeed if Dong Thap can maintain a large ecological area and enough food for the cranes to live and reproduce.

According to the ICF, there are around 15,000-20,000 red-crowned cranes in the world, 8,000-10,000 of them in India, Nepal and Pakistan and the rest in mainland Southeast Asia.

In Vietnam and Cambodia, their numbers have fallen from 850 in 2014 to 179 in 2020.

 
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