The Cranes of Napa Hai

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 9, 2006

High amongst the Hengduan Mountains lies the Napa Hai Basin, home of Black-necked Cranes, White-tailed Eagles, Himalayan Griffons, egrets, ducks, geese, Tibetan villages, livestock, and the town of Shangri-la--my home away from home--for now. The marshes of Napa Hai became another sort of home for me over the last month.

The lifeblood of Napa Lake and its surrounding marshes--water--comes from the surrounding mountains. Being a basin, the water never reaches the sea; instead, it reaches Napa Hai and evaporates over time. During the wet season, the lake expands, during the dry season, the lake disappears.

Seventeen Tibetan villages surround Napa Hai, including Hamugu. These villages depend on the uplands and wetlands of Napa Hai, as most of their food comes from barley and livestock--tsampa, yak butter tea, fried yak, lamb, pork.

Soon after I arrived in Shangri-la, even as snow lay upon the earth, the villagers were plowing their fields.

I knew that time was short: after plowing, sowing the seeds was next. That was when the cranes would migrate to the northern wetlands on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

Less than 3,000 breeding pairs of Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) remain on this earth. The species has seen a significant decline. Napa Hai village elders recall when cranes were abundant; now they are sparse. Between 100 and 200 Black-necked Cranes were at Napa Hai this year, according to my informal survey of the area.

The Black-necked Crane shares the world with fourteen other crane species, including the Whooping, the Sandhill, the Siberian, the Hooded, and the Red-crowned. Many of these are declining, vulnerable, or threatened with extinction. The cranes span all inhabitable continents, living in places such as the savannas of Africa, the Himalayas, the plains of North America, the wetlands of Japan.

These cranes are a symbol that span the boundaries of countries, representing longevity, peace, wisdom, and prosperity.

Cranes mate for life. A Tibetan story is told, as the female crane turns to the male and says: "We may not have much, but I will feed in this mud with you forever."

Thus, I began following the lives of the Black-necked Crane at Napa Hai. My job was to capture photographs and video of the cranes in action. This was a difficult task. I did have a 300mm f/4 lens with 1.4x tele-extender for my camera and a 2x tele-converter for the video camera. They helped. Still, I needed to get close but I had nowhere to hide and the cranes were very wary of people. At the same time, these birds were rare and I didn't want to disturb them.

They needed to be comfortable with me.

In many respects, all birds have one thing in common, aside from laying eggs and feathers: they all have a "space", as in "hey, man, you're in my space." Luckily the space changes depending on your mood, the mood of the cranes, and how you approach them.

I watched as villagers walked around Napa Hai, scaring the birds whenever they came near. I needed to get about five times closer without scaring them.

Approaching the Black-necked Crane reminded me of the times when I was working with another rare bird, the Piping Plover. With the Piping Plover, the shorebird biologists and I had to locate every nest, know every egg, follow every chick, and record every fledgling on about 30 miles of beach. We needed to wait for hours, days and let the birds reveal to us what they were doing--on their own time.

I began my approach of the cranes slowly, walking at a slight angle to them. Once I was about the distance when the birds normally flew away, I slowed my steps further and walked sideways, one foot at a time. When they stopped feeding and rose their heads high, I stopped too.

About an hour later, I was within 100 yards of the birds. At this point, I sat down and began the painstaking approach through the muck. It went like this:

Move the tripod forward.
Push my body up to the tripod.
Rearrange the microphone and camera in my lap.
Repeat 50 times.
Rest, take photographs and video.
Continue moving forward, slowly.

The key is to photograph what you have. The birds may decide they like another place better, and they often change locations.

The first time I did this, it took me over two hours to approach the cranes. The cranes by then were comfortable with me and several walked by me. I had two minutes to take pictures before they flew to join their companions.

Other times, the birds would leave before I got close. It would then take hours to start over again, pushing the equipment through the cold muck.

Another time, I decided to camp near the cranes. I approached at night and used their calling to guide me through the wetlands. For one hour, I put together my tent, feeling the pieces one by one, slowly. I fell asleep with the cranes and hundreds of ducks right next to me.

I awoke before dawn, to a dark grey landscape. The ducks were quacking, beeping, and chatting to one another, and the cranes were calling their majestic cries. As the orange glow of dawn struck the birds, I was in awe. The ducks flew as one to their feeding grounds, leaving me to film the cranes.

Walking back to Shangri-la from Napa Hai took hours, but I enjoyed the walking. Along the way, I watched Himalayan Griffon and Cinereous Vultures eating a dead yak. I traversed sections of quaking bog where sometimes I figured I would sink and forever be preserved like Cro-magnon Man, discovered thousands of years later. I also made note of the many underlying problems at Napa Hai, for a report I would submit to WWF.

The main problem facing Napa Hai is Shangri-la. At the same time Shangri-la may be the only solution too.

The triple threat facing Napa Hai and its cranes is composed of 1) pollution, 2) loss of wetlands, and 3) over-use of wetlands. The town of Shangri-la, I believe, is to blame for all of these, in large part (see photographs).

The entire western Napa Hai basin is composed of the rapidly-growing town of Shangri-la. Along the way to Napa Hai, the water from this part of the basin accumulates raw sewage, motor oil, paint solvent, laundromat effluent, and dozens of other toxins from hundreds of sources that include hotels, mom 'n' pop stores, and my bathroom (yes, we are all part of the problem and the solution). By the time the water reaches Napa Hai, it is blackened and covered with oil slicks and sickly boils and bubbles. Would you drink this? I don't think so. Yet the cranes and ducks live and feed in this--they depend on the water for their lives.

The water coming from Shangri-la no longer flows freely but instead is channelized with earthen dikes controlling its direction. Typically, after heavy rains or while the snow was melting, the meandering streams would overflow and spill into wetlands. Today, these wetlands have been converted into grazing areas.

These grazing areas are where Shangri-la gets its food. One hundred thousand mouths need food. The seventeen villages of Napa Hai no longer only need to feed themselves in a traditional manner but also now earn a good income from feeding Shangri-la and its tourists. Little is left for wildlife and the over-grazing will eventually reduce the productivity of the land.

Shangri-la is unsustainable.

If Shangri-la is unsustainable, how can we expect the rest of the world to be sustainable?

Yet, solutions can come from Shangri-la, with perhaps some prodding from WWF. Shangri-la can address its pollution issues. Shangri-la can determine where it gets its food and avoid overtaxing sensitive, threatened wetlands. Shangri-la can remove the earthen dikes and channelized water flow. Shangri-la can provide a sustainable income for villagers through ecotourism, including birdwatching.

Shangri-la are you the utopia that you say you are, or are you just a name attached to a place in order to make money from tourism?

The cranes are watching.
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lraleigh on

Re: walkabout
Hi Steph,

Congrats on UCLA! I'm surprised that you're going back to LA ;)

The cranes, also, are leaving...for their summer home in Qinghai. But it's not just the cranes...

You're still going to Brazil, too, right?

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