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Red-crowned Crane Can't Recognize Destroyed Wetlands
The Zhalong Nature Reserve in northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province -- China’s largest red-crane habitat -- has again been hit by fire. Although the fire was extinguished thanks to the efforts of local government and residents, the reserve was damaged beyond recognition, and returning cranes cannot find out their previous home.

A large area of the reed pond of Zhalong reserve caught fire last October, and although the flames were extinguished, the fire continues to burn under the reed pond due to the depth and twisting of the reeds. According to an investigation by the forestry department of Heilongjiang Province, the fire of this year was caused by the spread of underground embers from the last fire.

Black burned scars can be seen around the reserve with smoke rising from the ground. The soles of the shoes become warm as one walks on the land. A local resident said the burned area is about the same as that of last year -- 200 square kilometers (54,820 acres).

Ni Hongwei, a researcher with the Natural Recourses Institute under the Heilongjiang Provincial Science Institute, said that the fire has changed or even damaged some functions and structures of the entire ecosystem which will result in corresponding changes in all kinds of creatures dwelling there as well as their habitat environment. This loss and damage is immeasurable, he added.

Zhalong Reserve situated in Songhua River-Nenjiang River Plain in western Heilongjiang Province is the largest state wetland nature reserve for rare species of birds composed mainly of such big waterfowl as crane. Reeds and marshland can be found everywhere in the reserve, providing a home for six species of crane including the wild red-crowned cranes whose number here makes up one-sixth of the world total.

Wetland in the reserve has been gradually decreased in area because of continuous drought. Now the car can travel where before water was waist deep. Earth cracks can be found here and there.

To make it worse, tens of small dams and reservoirs for irrigation in upper reaches block two-thirds of the Wuyuer River and almost all of the Shuangyang River, the main water sources of Zhalong wetland. Some 400 to 500 million cubic meters of water used to flow to the wetland. The figure now is down to 100 million cubic meters. In addition, the just completed Jiuzhi water conservancy project, which did not pass an environmental impact evaluation, goes through Zhalong. This blocks another 90,000 cubic meters from Wuyuer River. As a result, besides natural precipitation, there is almost no external water supply for the Zhalong wetland.

According to a senior engineer surnamed Sun with the meteorological department of Qiqihar, people have competed for water with the Zhalong wetland since the 1970s, bringing some wetland under cultivation. Qiqihar witnessed four massive floods between 1982 and 1994. However, Zhalong didn’t expand noticeably as an adjustment, underscoring the influences made by humankind.

Deputy Director of the Zhalong Nature Reserve Administration Li Changyou said the area with water all the year round is only 130 square kilometers (32,123 acres) in the whole preserve of 2,100 square kilometers (518,910 acres). The living space for wild red-crowned cranes is becoming less and less.

The large burned area in the reserve poses a threat to red-crowned cranes’ living environment. According to one local official, relatively slightly burned reeds will recover this spring; moderately burned reeds with unaffected roots will recover in two to three years; and reeds with withered roots in seriously burned areas will turn into barren land where rare wildfowl such as red-crowned cranes can no longer find a home.

Reeds in the wetlands of Zhalong have brought considerable profit to the local residents, but the consequent burning on reed roots caused by the big fire this April has seriously damaged reed resources and will adversely affect the life of local residents. The initial evaluation shows the direct monetary loss reaches beyond ten million yuan (about US$1.2 million).

The wetlands shortage of water means a lack of adequate food for red-crowned cranes. To guarantee the food provisions for the returning red-crowned cranes, staff members at the reserve have cast 2,500 kg corn into the haunts of cranes so that these “honored guest” on a long journey can replenish energy there.

The State Songliao Water Conservancy Commission, together with water conservancy department of Qiqihar and Zhalong Reserve, launched an emergency water project last July that will be finished in May next year to pump 37 million cubic meters of water into the wetland of Zhalong through rebuilding existing canals. This project will bring 100 million cubic meters of water to Zhalong each year to moisten the thirsty 150 square kilometers (37,065 acres) wetland.

The government of Heilongjiang Province has also decided to add 300 million cubic meters of water to the thirsty wetland of Zhalong to maintain the wetland ecological system. It will also do research on decisive measures to solve the ecological problem in Zhalong Reserve.

(新华社 [Xinhua News Agency] translated by Zhang Tingting for china.org.cn, May 10, 2002)

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