George Archibald is fondly known as ?The Man who Dances with Cranes.? After helping to found the International Crane Foundation?in Baraboo Wis., in 1973, Dr. Archibald earned his reputation for innovative captive breeding through his work with a young whooping crane named Tex in the late 70s.
Tex, who? was born in a zoo, had an irreversible identification with humans and showed no interest in her own endangered species. To persuade this rare bird to lay an egg, Dr. Archibald spent every day over the course of? four springs creating a pair bond with Tex, dancing with her? when she displayed and staying close to her throughout the day.? With the help of artificial insemination and her human bond, Tex laid a fertile egg in 1981.
On Thursday, Dr. Archibald was honored by the National Audubon Society??at the Plaza Hotel in New York as the first recipient of the group?s $100,000 Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership.
Recently we spoke with? him about his continuing love affair with cranes and his foundation?s conservation efforts around the world. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.
You have devoted your life to the conservation of cranes, but why cranes? What is their fascination for you?
Well, for as long as I can remember, I?ve always been drawn to birds and cranes as sort of like super-birds. They are just magnificent, almost magical birds. They are the tallest flying birds in the world and have complicated and beautiful behaviors ? they dance and duet and have all kinds of vocal and visual languages in ways that seem to be human-like. They are devoted to a single mate for life and?rear just one or two chicks at a time. Because of this and other factors, they are also one of the most endangered groups of birds.
What are the top threats to crane survival?
One of the biggest threats to cranes is the decline of wetlands around the world. Wetlands are drained to make more agricultural land or to accommodate expanding cities. In China, for example, there are plans to dam?the outflow of? the country?s biggest lake, Lake Poyang.?
During the summer monsoons, the lake fills with water, but in the winter the water levels fall, creating a mosaic of mud flats and ponds and grasslands, and the aquatic birds ? cranes, geese, swans, storks, hornbills ? they come in the hundreds of thousands. The dam would keep 19 meters of water [62 feet] in the lake year round and destroy the bird?s habitat.
And this is all exacerbated by climate change, which has led to new and irregular precipitation patterns. Even undisturbed wetlands are threatened by dwindling streams and receding flood plains.
In the Middle East, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is still a lot of uncontrolled sport hunting of cranes. And all over Africa, the most endangered species of crane, the crowned crane, is being trapped and sold to wealthy customers in the Middle East and China.
Crowned cranes are the cranes with that big, flamboyant headdress of feathers. They are the national bird of Uganda, but their numbers have declined by eighty percent there because of this trade.
What international crane conservation projects are you involved in right now?
Right now. I?m working a lot in North Korea. There used to be a lot of cranes in North Korea, but during the food shortages of the 1990s, they all left and showed up at the D.M.Z. [demilitarized zone] between North and South Korea. But now there is a lot of development in South Korea, so we are trying to prepare a place for them to return to in North Korea. I go there every year ? as a Canadian, I can get a visa and go in through Beijing.
Our project site is on the coast, this huge valley known as the Ambyon Plain. We are helping local people to develop organic farming techniques to increase their food production and restoring wetlands by flooding the rice fields after the harvest. All the aquatic life in the mud comes alive when the fields are flooded, a feast of snails and mud fish for the cranes.
We have a pair of decoy captive red-crowned cranes that are in a big fenced area in the middle of the valley, and they call the wild birds down as they fly south from the breeding grounds.? There are less then 3,000 red-crowned cranes in the world, so any addition to their habitat and range is huge.
Do you have a favorite species of crane?
Whatever crane I am looking at. I don?t even mean that facetiously.
And your most memorable interaction with a crane?
Once, when I was in Bhutan,? there was a very young crane that wandered away from its parents and joined a different group of cranes. Those cranes had decided to fly over the mountains and began circling and circling so they could get over this very high range. The parents of the little crane watched the scene.
The male crane then took off and flew like an arrow toward the flock of other cranes, calling to his mate on the ground, who remained with the other chick. The father crane went into the ascending flock and got his chick back. The family was reunited. I was just so touched by that devotion. Also, there is nothing quite like seeing cranes flying over the tops of the Himalayas. I?m just dumbstruck by it, and we still don?t even know how they do it with so little oxygen up there.
I was also very touched by a crane who lost its mate in the D.M.Z. and refused to leave the dead bird?s side even though there was no food and the bird was getting weaker and weaker. That bird was rescued by soldiers, nursed back to health and eventually released back in Siberia on the breeding grounds. But I will never forget that bird mourning its mate.
Is there any part of the world that you long to visit to see cranes?
Absolutely. I?m not done yet. Every day I read about this war that has broken out in Mali. One of the world?s greatest wetlands is in that region, the Inner Niger Delta. It?s a huge flood plain of the Niger River with spectacular aquatic birds.
I?d also love to go to southern Sudan, to the Sudd,? the upper region of the White Nile River, which originates in Lake Victoria. This region has been unstable for years, but someday I would like to go and see how the cranes are faring. Conflict doesn?t usually bode well for wildlife. Unless of course there is the creation of a D.M.Z.!
Do you see a role for cranes internationally?
Cranes are ambassadors for the world?s wetlands. Everyone who loves cranes ? and there are so many crane lovers around the world ?? understands that in order to save the cranes, we must save their homes.? So many other species are thus saved by saving wetlands.
They are also ambassadors for international good will. Scientists from North Korea want to work with scientists from South Korea on crane conservation. Cranes create unlikely allies, and I think can bring out the best in people.