Bird of beauty heads south to extinction: For the first time, Siberian cranes migrating to an Indian marshland have failed to arrive. Tim McGirk reports from Bharatpur

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Siberian cranes splash down in the Bharatpur marsh near New Delhi, following an ancient flight-path sweeping down from the Arctic across wide plains, deserts and the Himalayas, their winter arrival makes headlines on the Indian television news. This year, only four birds came to India - in a box.

For the first time, Siberian cranes failed to complete their 3,000-mile winter migration. The only Siberian cranes that reached the Indian marshes this year were four raised in captivity, and they did so rattling around in the cargo hold of an airliner. The wild cranes, a majestic white speckled with cinnamon, with black wingtips, should have landed in November. Scientists from India, the US and Russia gathered in Bharatpur are now losing hope.

Meeni Nagendran, an American ornithologist, said: 'We don't know what's happened to them. I wouldn't be surprised if they were all gone - dead.' Last year, only five Siberian cranes survived the arduous journey to India, and there are fears that the birds' extinction is irreversible.

One explanation is that this year's small flock was shot in Afghanistan and eaten. One of the cranes' stop-overs on the way to Bharatpur is Abi-Estada lake, in the mountains south of Kabul, where they fuel up on water insects and roots. But tribal wars have caused food shortages, making it hard for Afghans to resist blasting away at the meaty visitors. Several years ago one aghast bird-lover spotted a Siberian crane in the Kabul bazaar, hanging from a hook.

'The cranes tend to use the mountain passes,' said Ms Nagendran, 'and that's where their folly lies.' In Pakistan, the Siberians are often lured down by captive cranes. Once they are trapped, they are either grilled, tandoori-style, or have their wings clipped so they can be used as watch-dogs. Their trumpeting cry scares away intruders. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, keeps several cranes as decorative sentries in her high-walled Karachi villa.

The no-show of the Siberians may also have doomed an experiment with the four baby cranes brought to the Bharatpur marshes in a box. Two of the chicks were raised in Russia and are called Bill and Bushy, while the other two, hatched at the International Crane Foundation in the US, are called Gorbie and Boris. The ornithologists wanted them to befriend the wild cranes at Bharatpur and tag along with them back to Siberia. Unlike many migratory animals, with road maps built into their genes, cranes have to be taught in which direction to fly. 'The cranes have the instinct, the restlessness, that drives them to migrate, but they don't know where to go. They have to learn the route,' said Ms Nagendran. Without the well-travelled adults to show them the way to Siberia, the chicks would be lost.

'Siberian cranes don't have flippant relationships. They're a very traditional bird. Not only do they mate for life, but when they go back to Siberia, they'll nest just 10 feet away from the old spot,' said Ms Nagendran, who must roll up her pants and don a wooden beak - part of her crane costume - before she can trudge through the marsh to feed the four chicks.

Scientists speculate that this species of crane may have been commuting between Siberia and the Indian marshes since the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. When the Bharatpur wildlife sanctuary first began counting Siberian cranes in 1964, more than 200 birds were recorded. Some Siberian cranes still winter in China, but their marshy holiday home there is threatened by a dam.

(Photograph omitted)