Zhao Shiwei and his colleagues are raising 131 red-crowned cranes at a breeding center in Panjin City of northeast China’s Liaoning Province. The number accounts for 1/5 of the country’s total population of wild red-crowned cranes.
Zhao, who is in his 40s, has been feeding the cranes a bucket of fish for 24 years.
“They are just like us, thinking only about eating when they were young, about having fun when they are older, and about finding a mate when they are fully grown up,” Zhao said, adding that after years of observation he knows the cranes very well.
When Zhao graduated as an animal husbandry and veterinary student in 1993, Zhaoquanhe Wildlife Reserve, where he got his first job, was home to only five red-crowned cranes. That number was inadequate for natural breeding.
Zhao started to put more efforts on artificial breeding in 1996.
From then on, he moved to the incubation house to better look after the eggs so that they could hatch successfully. He waited for 30 days and nights till the first three chicks came out of their eggs. At that moment, Zhao burst into happy tears.
Now, the fertilization rate of the eggs is 80 percent and the survival rate remains above 90 percent. From 1996 to 2005, the crane population grew from five to more than 30.
But Zhao wanted to let more birds breed naturally.
After seeing some of his cranes fall in love with wild ones, Zhao started releasing the captive ones so that they could be together.
Some wild cranes decided to stay at Zhao’s base after finding that they had fell behind the group because they were too busy wooing their captive darlings.
From 2005 to 2015, the number of red-crowned cranes rose to 80. From 2015, Zhao started to train the cranes to survive in the wild. “I always kept away from them, because they would come to me once they knew I was nearby,” Zhao said.
“Releasing them into the wild is easy, but the point is to teach them how to survive. I will feel that my job is done when they learn how to survive in the wild,” he added.
Approaching 30 years with the cranes, Zhao expects that it will take another 5-10 years to see the results of his training. “When their population reaches 300, their release will prove more useful to boost the whole species,” Zhao is confident.
Red-crowned cranes are currently listed as an endangered species in China. The government has created multiple breeding programs to help keep these majestic birds from becoming extinct.