The DMZ’s Thriving Resident: The Crane

Rare cranes have flourished in the world’s unlikeliest sanctuary, the heavily mined demilitarized zone between North and South Korea

North and South Korea are collaborating to save one of the world's most endangered bird species, red-crowned cranes. (Michael S. Yamashita)
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In 1961, an American serviceman reported that more than 2,000 white-naped cranes rested in the DMZ before flying on. More reports followed. White-naped and red-crowned cranes were roosting in the Han-Imjin estuary that drains into the Yellow Sea near Seoul and in the Panmunjom Valley in the DMZ. In the early 1970s, both crane species were discovered again, in the Cheorwon Basin, part of which is inside the DMZ and much of which is in the Civilian Control Zone, or CCZ, a buffer just south of the DMZ that runs parallel to it. Farming is allowed in the CCZ, but public access is restricted. Currently, about 800 red-crowned cranes and 1,500 white-naped cranes winter in or near the basin.

“It really is quite astounding to think of cranes surviving in such a place, but they seem to prefer contested territories,” says George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Archibald is a world authority on cranes as well as their most spirited champion. He has worked for nearly 40 years to protect them. He began captive breeding cranes in 1972, had human handlers dress as cranes to feed chicks, and even danced with adult cranes to encourage them to mate. To see the world’s 15 different species in their native habitats, he has traveled to all manner of hostile terrains. He first visited the cranes in the DMZ in 1974.

Archibald argues that the DMZ should be turned into an ecological reserve, a proposal that would require an unprecedented embrace of conservation in South Korea, a country better known for encouraging development. But having such a refuge is critical for the bird’s future. “In other parts of South Korea, most crane habitat is very degraded,” Archibald says. “If and when North and South Korea reunite, the development pressures on the DMZ are going to be severe.” In the event of reunification, a huge port is proposed for the DMZ’s Han River estuary, where white-naped cranes winter; a reunification city is planned for the Cheor­won Basin. Granted, concerns about what will happen when the two nations stop fighting can seem premature. That doesn’t bother Archibald. “A little forward thinking never hurt anyone,” he told me.

A second focus of Archibald’s forward thinking is 65 miles northeast of Cheorwon, in North Korea’s Anbyon Plain, where about 250 red-crowned cranes used to spend winters. North Korean scientists told Archibald at a 2005 meeting in Beijing that the crane population was declining; he found out later that the birds had in fact disappeared. Crippling droughts, compounded by a poor food-distribution infrastructure, caused massive starvation and malnourishment in the 1990s; a million or more people died. There was no food for cranes, either, and the birds moved on, presumably to the DMZ, where Choi and others noted an uptick in their surveys.

Data from cranes that biologists had captured and outfitted with satellite transmitters, however, showed that the birds continued to fly over the Anbyon Plain, if not stop there. Archibald proposed a way to entice them to stay—by working with local farmers. “George has always felt that you can’t help cranes without also helping the people who live near them,” says Hall Healy, chairman of the crane foundation’s board. “He tries to show that their fates are intertwined. Cranes need people more than people need cranes.” The farmers already understood this. Help us feed ourselves, they told Archibald, and we will help feed the cranes.

In March 2008, Archibald traveled to Anbyon, a rare visit by a Western scientist to North Korea. He donated 3,000 seedlings for apricot, chestnut, persimmon and plum trees to help prevent erosion on denuded hills, as well as nitrogen-fixing plants like hairy vetch to increase the fertility of soils scorched by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. He also helped the village cooperative purchase a rice-milling machine to improve crop yields. Finally, to coax in cranes, the Pyongyang Central Zoo lent a pair of red-crowned cranes in 2009.

Then Archibald waited. In late November 2009, he heard from his North Korean colleagues: hundreds of red-crowned cranes had flown overhead, and 13 of them had landed in the fields with the donated pair. The next day, spotters counted 41 cranes. Although the birds stayed for only a few days before continuing to the DMZ, they were the first cranes in Anbyon in more than ten years.

Securing support for the project is a delicate undertaking. Aid straight from the U.S. or South Korean governments would be politically unacceptable to the North Korean Academy of Sciences, which oversees the project. Funds are cobbled together from individuals and nongovernmental organizations such as the International Crane Foundation. A South Korean woman who has family in North Korea told her 10-year-old son about the cranes. He baked cookies and raised about $200 for the project.

“George can do these things because he is apolitical, and in the end only cares about cranes,” says Ke Chung Kim of Penn State University, a founder of the DMZ Forum, an organization dedicated to the conservation of the DMZ. “Without the biodiversity that the DMZ supports—without cranes—Korea will have lost something very precious.”


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