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Russian Effort To Save Cranes Fails To Get Off The Ground

Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to take part in a scientific experiment as part of the "Flight of Hope," which aims to preserve a rare species of cranes, in September 2012.
Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to take part in a scientific experiment as part of the "Flight of Hope," which aims to preserve a rare species of cranes, in September 2012.

It was only five years ago that Russian President Vladimir Putin, decked out in baggy white jumpsuit and an oversized helmet, was flying wing to wing with a flock of endangered Siberian cranes.

Piloting an ultralight aircraft, Putin led a V formation of the birds in an effort to prepare them for their seasonal migrations to the south.

Following the so-called "flight of hope," meticulously documented by official state media, Putin presented himself as a protector of his fine feathered friends and vowed to save them.

But the initiative, it seems, has crashed.

Funding for a program to raise cranes and put them into the wild is short after its main sponsor apparently dropped out. Ultralight planes like the one Putin flew, which were intended to guide the uninitiated young birds, sit collecting dust at a nature reserve. They haven't been flown since 2013.

Another nature reserve where the birds were to rest along their migratory path is a state park in name only, receiving no funding from the Kremlin. And the fate of the cranes who entered the wild? No one really knows, because with money short, satellite-tracking devices are not feasible.

It's all left Russia's environmental community grounded, dashing any hopes that Putin's flight and pledges may have raised.

"To really get the cranes to safe winter havens, you'd need a raft of official documents," explains Yury Markin, director of the Oka Nature Reserve, where some of the endangered Siberian cranes can be found.

"You'd need to get permission to enter the airspace of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other countries. You need permission for takeoffs and landings. Veterinary certificates for the cranes, just getting all the documentation together, would, first, require a huge effort, and, secondly, money," Markin explains.

Hope In Siberia

Siberian cranes are the most far-ranging of the crane family. They migrate 5,000 kilometers between their breeding ground in the Siberian Arctic and their wintering sites in China and Iran.

One of the two main population groups of the birds, the Western Siberian cranes, are on the verge of extinction, numbering only about 20 birds. The Yakutsk, or Eastern cranes, are better off with an estimated 4,000.

The drop in the Siberian crane population is attributed to the hunting of the birds, as well as the destruction of wetland habitat due to the development of the oil and gas industry in Central Asia.

In autumn 2005, three ultralights were launched from Uvat, Russia, in one of the first efforts to guide the cranes to their wintering grounds.

But the initiative appeared to really take off in 2012, when Putin took to the skies with the cranes over the Yamal Peninsula.

Russian President Vladimir Putin flies with the cranes -- an initiative that would soon stall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flies with the cranes -- an initiative that would soon stall.

At the time, the Kremlin said it was Putin himself who had come up with the idea to save the cranes.

Those working to save the Siberian crane hoped that, with Putin in their corner, they would get the support -- first and foremost financially -- to succeed.

After cruising with the cranes, Putin announced in 2014 that Russia would expand the number of programs to help endangered species in Russia, including migratory birds.

Taking Interest To Moscow

However, a year after Putin's stunt, funding to save the cranes nosedived.

One of the key sponsors for the flight of hope was the Crane Fund, which was directed by Aleksandr Yermakov, a member of the regional legislative assembly in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region, and a member of United Russia, the pro-Putin political party that dominates Russia's political landscape.

Yermakov's interest in the fund appears to have ended in 2013 when he left for Moscow, where he took up his newly elected seat in the Federation Council.

Yermakov refused to answer questions by RFE/RL's Russian Service's regional news outlet, Siberia.Reality, about whether the crane project was still being funded. "I've been a member of the Federation Council for four years now, working on legislative issues, and therefore I'm not involved in other activities due to a lack of time," he said in a written response.

No one else with deep pockets appears to have stepped forward since, including the Russian government. The Environment Ministry has not earmarked any funds for the project. With next to no cash, the last ultralight to guide the cranes over the Oka Nature Reserve on their southward migratory path was four years ago, in 2013.

Since then, rangers at the reserve say they keep watch over the planes, occasionally carrying out maintenance. However, there is no money to pay pilots to fly the craft.

"We're not the only ones involved in this project. There are lots of partners," reserve director Markin says. "To restart the flights, all the pieces of this mosaic need to meet in one place. That's not happening. We are responsible for the cranes, not the flights. Our task is to raise chicks, and we do that."

As Markin notes, no serious efforts have been made to chart the migratory path for the cranes within Russia itself, let alone beyond its borders.

Staying Course, Just

One of the few planned stops for the cranes inside Russia now appears far from ideal. The Beloozero (White Lake) Natural Reserve is not actually a national park, and does not receive funding from Moscow to staff it. Officials in the Tyumen region say inspectors are sent to Beloozero a few times a year to have a look, but nothing else.

Back at the Oka Nature Reserve, Siberian cranes are being raised just as they have for the last 13 years. From there, their future is largely unknown.

To properly follow the birds' progress would require attaching satellite-tracking devices, and there's little money for that. This year, scientists managed to put cheaper GPS/GSM trackers on six cranes. In a year, they hope to know how many of the six survived the migratory trip.

Tatyana Kashentseva, who heads the crane-breeding program at Oka, is not optimistic or overly pessimistic. "At least the Western Siberian crane population that we are trying to save is not disappearing in the hundreds or dozens, but just a few at a time," she says.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Siberia.Reality correspondent Andrei Golovanov
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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