Red-crowned cranes sing together at the Zhalong Nature Reserve, Heilongjiang province, in 2011. (PHOTOS PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
A young woman is the third generation to devote her life to the protection of red-crowned cranes, as Tian Xuefei and Zhou Huiying report from Harbin.
Every day, Xu Zhuo, 25, opens her diary and writes down the details of her daily work - feeding, breeding, inoculating and curing red-crowned cranes. She is following in the footsteps of her grandfather, father and aunt in a story that combines dedication and tragedy.
In 2016, when Xu graduated from Northeast Forestry University in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, she declined the offer of postgraduate study and instead became a researcher into the breeding and protection of red-crowned cranes at the Zhalong Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang.
Established in 1979, the reserve, located in the western part of Heilongjiang, is a well-preserved primitive wetland
Established in 1979, the reserve, located in the western part of Heilongjiang, is a well-preserved primitive wetland.
Covering 2,100 square kilometers, the wetland lies on a major migratory route for birds from the Arctic to Southeast Asia, and is stopover point and nesting area for a large number of bird species including storks, swans, herons and grebes.
In 1992, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands listed the reserve, which is home to about 400 wild red-crowned cranes, as an International Important Wetland Protectorate.
"Before the reserve was founded the number of red-crowned cranes was very low," said Wang Wenfeng, deputy director of the reserve's administrative office. "There were only about 140 at the reserve at the time. They are very sensitive and will fly away as soon as people get close to them, even if they are only trying to feed them."
The cranes' natural timidity meant the protection work came to a standstill until the researchers met a local fisherman who often saved and treated injured birds.
The fisherman was Xu Tielin, Xu Zhuo's grandfather. When the researchers invited him to join their protection team, it was the start of an enduring relationship between red-crowned cranes and three generations of the Xu family.
"Xu Tielin donated his house as a temporary office, with the reserve's plaque hanging above the door," Wang said.
To start their work, Xu Tielin and his colleagues covered every meter of the reserve, locating and assessing the condition of every crane's nest.
After several years, they developed a combination of artificial breeding and natural reproduction in the wild, which improved the survival rate and also ensured that a large number of birds remained in their natural habitat.
When he discovered chicks that were injured, Xu Tielin often brought them home and asked his wife and daughter to help feed and care for them.
A natural talent
Although she was only in her early teens, his daughter, Xu Xiujuan, quickly became familiar with the birds' habits and characteristics. In 1981, at age 17, she joined the reserve's crane-breeding team.
"Conditions were really tough at the time," her mother, Huang Zhenyao, recalled. "The crane sheds were made of reeds, and they often attracted uninvited guests, such as pie-dogs (a type of pariah) and foxes."
Despite all the difficulties, Xu Xiujuan never swayed from her objective.
"I love red-crowned cranes and nature. Once I step into the wild lands, I forget all the unpleasantness," she wrote in her diary.
After training for just a few days, she was able to work independently. Later, she helped to set a record - a 100 percent survival rate for nestlings.
The chicks she tamed would tweet, fly and dance at her command, all of which was captured on film by documentary makers telling the story of the reserve's red-crowned cranes.
In addition, she mastered all the techniques of feeding, breeding and hatching the red-crowned cranes, as well as white-naped and demoiselle cranes, which saw her become China's first female breeder of the birds.
In March 1985, at the recommendation of two professors at Northeast Forestry University, she entered the school to study wildlife protection for two years.
However, in May 1986, she completed her studies a year ahead of schedule and was invited to help establish a nonmigratory group of red-crowned cranes at the Yancheng Wetland National Nature Reserve in Jiangsu province, which had been set up three years earlier.
Having persuaded her parents to allow her to take the post, Xu left for Yancheng carrying three cranes' eggs.
During the three-day journey, she kept the eggs warm by placing them inside her clothing and brought them safely to the reserve.
Thanks to her deep experience and expertise, Xu hatched the eggs successfully, and after 83 days' careful feeding the three chicks took to the skies for the first time.
In September 1987, Xu pledged to devote herself to protecting the birds.
"I would like to devote my whole life to protecting the red-crowned cranes, even I have to give up comforts, money and my life," she wrote in her diary at the time.
Sadly, that is exactly what happened. A short time later, she drowned after falling into a watery marsh while trying to rescue a stranded crane. She was just 23.
The people of China became aware of the tragedy in the 1990s, when it was related in a popular song, The Story of the Red-crowned Cranes.
In addition, the National Ballet of China based an original production called The Crane Whisperer on Xu Xiujuan's life. It premiered at the Tianqiao Theater in Beijing in September 2015.
"I was impressed by the devotion as well as the love and interaction between the cranes and their caretakers. I think it's a beautiful story about the relationship between humans and nature. It's also universal," said Feng Ying, president of the National Ballet of China.
Xu Jianfeng holds a crane at the reserve. He died in 2014.
Energy and emotion
In 1997, Xu Jianfeng, Xu Xiujuan's younger brother, resigned from his job at a large State-owned factory in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang, and moved to the Zhalong reserve to follow in his sister's footsteps.
"My sister's death left me with great sorrow, as well as responsibility and pressures," said Xu Jianfeng, who was the father of Xu Zhuo, at the time.
"I want to succeed in her undertaking, which is also my family's undertaking."
After years of hard work, he became an expert in captive breeding and field rescue. Like his father and sister, Xu Jianfeng put all his energy and emotion into his work.
However, in April 2014, tragedy hit the family once again, when he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
He had been working in the wetland for two days, protecting a crane chick. As he rode home exhausted, his motorbike left the road and ended up in a ditch.
"We successfully bred more than 100 red-crowned cranes under his leadership, and he treated every one of them like his own child," said Gao Yanzhong, a researcher and former colleague of Xu Jianfeng.
Change of direction
When she was studying horticulture at Northeast Agricultural University, Xu Zhuo originally planned to ply that trade in South China. However, she changed her mind after her father's unexpected death.
"When I read his diary, I was touched by his detailed records of raising red-crowned cranes from the first day he worked in the wetland. When I finish reading all the diaries, I decided to continue his work," she said.
She decided to transfer to Northeast Forestry University and study wildlife conservation.
"The university is also my aunt's alma mater," she said. "I think it is the best way to cherish her memory. Although I never met my aunt, I grew up with the song and her story, which has guided my life. As the third generation of my family to protect red-crowned cranes, I will continue walking that road."
However, when she began work at the reserve, she discovered that the knowledge she had gained at university was far from sufficient to do the work.
Determined to succeed, she pored over numerous books and other study materials, consulting her former professors and experienced colleagues if she discovered problems she was unable to solve.
Now, she shuttles through the reeds every day, monitoring the cranes and then recording the details in her notebook along with vivid illustrations she draws as a special way of continuing her father's work.
Yang Wenbo, director of the Zhalong Nature Reserve administration, praised the family's dedication and long service to the cause of protecting red-crowned cranes.
"Thanks to the efforts of the Xu family and many other protectors like them, we have developed effective methods of artificially propagating the species," he said.
"In addition, the government has introduced a series of measures to restore the wetland and protect its wildlife, including water diversion projects and storage facilities, and returning farmland to wetland."
In 2009, the provincial government began a long-term water provision project to prevent the wetland from contracting.
Nine years later, nearly 3 billion cubic meters of water have been supplied, which has helped to save the endangered cranes and preserve biodiversity.
Moreover, a relocation project that started in March 2013 has made great progress.
"There are two villages and one small settlement of 296 households in the wetland's main area, making a population of about 1,000 people," said Ma Zhandong, Party secretary of Zhalong town, where the wetland is located.
"The local people have traditionally made their living by fishing or selling reeds, but human activity seriously affects the birds."
To prevent the birds from being disturbed, the residents will be relocated.
"About 100 million yuan (US$16 million) has been earmarked for the project. A housing estate where the people will be resettled was completed at the start of the year," Ma said. "We have the support of most of the villagers, and the first group will move before Spring Festival."
Wetland resident Yang Fuyou said he is looking forward to moving.
"Our children need schools and our parents need hospitals. That's why we want to move. I have chosen a first-floor apartment where I can open a convenience store and earn a living," he said.
Yang Wenbo said: "We have a population of 430 red-crowned cranes and more than 260 other species of rare birds in the wetland. The nature reserve is a successful example of wetland and bird protection, and it has gained recognition from conservationists both at home and abroad."