Cranes and people in China : culture, science, and conservation

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Gao, Yugong

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Cranes occupy a special place in the lives and history of the Chinese people, both as endangered birds and as symbols of longevity and happiness. Through mythology, religion, and artistic imagination, cranes acquired an elite, almost divine status among feathered creatures. This perception continues to color Chinese attitudes toward them. Scientific observation of the birds began in China in the mid-19th century through the efforts of European explorers and naturalists. The plight of cranes facing threat of extinction caught people’s attention only in the late 1970s. A new era of crane research and conservation dawned. In the following decade, propelled by a somewhat nationalistic desire to catch up with the West, plus a favorable internal and external political environment, we have seen the population figures of ix endangered cranes steadily increasing, along with the number of protected sites, or crane reserves, over 50 in mid 1990s. During the last 10 years or so, however, rapid economic development plus a lack of conscientious grassroots support have rendered the future of cranes in China all but uncertain. This research examines the historical documents and contemporary literature concerning the perception, knowledge, appreciation, utilization and protection of cranes in China. It is an effort to investigate and convey an understanding of the complex cultural phenomenon of people-bird relations. It is hoped that this work would, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s words, serve society “by raising its level of consciousness,” in search of a better future for both the culture and the birds, which not only co-exist with, but also extraordinarily enrich it.



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