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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hanging With Endangered Siberian Cranes

Angelodarrigo.comHang-gliding champion D'Arrigo guiding his flock of young western Siberian cranes.
OKSKY STATE NATURE RESERVE, Central Russia -- Lean, light and hawk-profiled, hang-glider pilot Angelo d'Arrigo twitches with a bird-like intensity and tends to push himself higher, ever higher, unsatisfied by the bounds of gravity.

So it is no coincidence that D'Arrigo wants to become a bird. Or at least as close to one as is humanly possible.

He calls it his five-year "Metamorphosis" project. And as part of it, he is embarking on one of the most ambitious -- and unusual -- wildlife rescue plans ever devised. Russian scientists and the U.S.-based International Crane Foundation have tapped D'Arrigo to help them rescue the western Siberian crane from extinction.

This elegant, long-limbed and long-lived bird has been ravaged by a shrinking habitat and hunting, especially a tiny subgroup of an endangered crane population that has been risking the combat zone of Afghanistan on its annual migration from north of the Arctic Circle to its wintering place in a national park in India.

In the wild, fewer than 20 of the western Siberian cranes are left. The scientists believe that D'Arrigo may prove the cranes' salvation by steering them instead to the highlands of Iran near the Caspian Sea.

Late last month, at the onset of the Arctic winter, D'Arrigo began leading 10 cranes bred in captivity on a new migration route. Soaring like a bird -- without an engine -- he will take them on a 5,400-kilometer journey following several Russian rivers that provide wetlands where the cranes can feed.

The two-time world champion hang glider pilot, retired from active competition, has devoted himself to studying birds -- mostly raptors -- trying to learn from them the secrets of unassisted flight.

Like the mythological Icarus, he intends to soar on the winds over mountain, sea and valley using the sun and the air currents as his engine. If he succeeds, it will be the longest human flight in the history of free flying.

And in the process, scientists plan for him to teach his charges, the Siberian cranes, a new, safer migration route that avoids Afghanistan and Pakistan -- where they fall victim to the abundant guns in the hands of tribal fighters -- and which would then, scientists hope, be passed on from parent to fledgling for generations of cranes to come.

"The attempt to change the migration route is truly an innovation," said Russian ornithologist Tatyana Zhuchkova, who is helping to raise the cranes bred in captivity at the Oksky State Nature Reserve, 370 kilometers southeast of Moscow. "It has never been done before."

At the reserve, the hatchling cranes -- now about 110 days old -- were "imprinted" to view D'Arrigo, wraparound sunglasses and all, as their parent. They were raised under the wings of his hang glider and received their food from him and other white-suited keepers.

Each day they saw him flying like an adult crane, riding on the thermal currents about them, and then landing with the same easy grace as a real crane. They were also taught to be at home with the sound of his 5.4-kilogram motor, which he requires only to take off or in an emergency when he cannot find the needed currents to keep him aloft. ("Unfortunately, I cannot flap," he said. "Maybe someday it will be possible.")

Working with him is a small corps of dedicated Russian naturalists like Zhuchkova, the ornithologist, who can't help admiring the species.

"These are very intelligent birds," she said. "Each has its own character and cast of mind and its own behavioral patterns. They have their own tastes, preferences, likes and dislikes. They know where they want to walk, what they want to eat and what they don't want to do.

"When they are little they are funny, and their intellectual level is not that high. ... When they grow up they become totally, absolutely independent individuals."

The young birds raised at the breeding center are far from that stage. For now, they need D'Arrigo to lead them on their migratory quest, and the benefit for him, he said, is to learn to live and think like a bird.

Most of the time on the migration, D'Arrigo explained in an interview in the nature reserve, his motor will be hauled back into his harness and his propellers folded back to look like black tail feathers. The set-up leaves him to glide only with his nylon and aluminum wings, which have been crafted to mimic the flying profile of the cranes.

The trans-Siberian migration is similar to the ultralight flights between Wisconsin and Florida by the International Crane Foundation to rescue the American whooping crane, but it is three times longer. (And an ultralight journey to teach orphaned Canada geese to migrate from Canada to North Carolina was the plot of the movie "Fly Away Home.") By employing unassisted flight rather than an ultralight airplane, D'Arrigo intends to make it easier on the young birds to keep up and not exhaust them on the lengthy voyage.

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Siberian cranes are close to extinction.
Each night, D'Arrigo will land with the birds, and each morning take off with them behind, in a leisurely journey expected to last up to 40 days.

Claire Mirande, director of the International Crane Foundation, based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, is enthusiastic. She sees the flight as the best hope to save the western Siberian crane, a graceful bird with a 1.8-meter wingspan, and the foundation and its patrons have come up with the funding for the effort.

For the past decade, Russian scientists have been raising the birds in captivity and then in the fall taking them to live in the wilds of Siberia. But the short

Arctic summer means that the birds hardly have time to mature before they face the difficult test of survival in making the lengthy journey.

"The birds [raised in captivity] learn to survive and start to migrate, but then there is a very, very low rate of seeing the birds again," Mirande said. "Our success rate is lower than we need to sustain the population, and that is why we are trying something so crazy." To make it, she said, "they just need that extra parental supervision."

The 320-square-kilometer crane reserve is along the Oka River, a winding tributary of the Volga. A wide range of biologists and botanists drive down from Moscow to work here.

During a visit in July, the two white wings of D'Arrigo's glider shimmered in the breeze across a sea of tall grasses that sheltered the pen where the crane chicks were being raised.

Tape players emitted recordings of the feeding sounds of Siberian cranes, interspersed with the sound of a working engine so that the birds learned not to be afraid. Twice a day, D'Arrigo stepped into his hang-glider harness and walked among them, handing out food to the still gangly fledglings who had not yet managed more than a few hops off the ground.

Walking among them were other staff of the breeding center, dressed in white hoods and knee-length white tunics, a rough approximation of a crane's plumage. Occasionally they flapped their arms, and the young cranes followed suit.

The area is strictly off-limits to the public, and visitors to the site are allowed to observe the cranes only from a distance of about 100 meters, hidden behind camouflage netting.

"We will handpick the best for the migration," said one of the biologists at the Oka reserve. "Our job is to change their mental imprinting and orient it toward the hang glider."

Of the 10 birds raised, only six were chosen for the flight.

D'Arrigo, his flying crew and the Russian scientists teaching the cranes to regard him as their parent lived for months in a small, shaded lodge about a kilometer away. The 40-year-old D'Arrigo -- whose mother was French and father Italian -- has been hang gliding since he was 16, when he first spotted a glider jumping off a mountain while he was at a competition on the French national ski team.

He went to work for a shop manufacturing hang gliders -- taking no salary in exchange for the promise that he would be able to build his own glider.

He went on to take part in hang-gliding competitions, and set world records in time and distance for free flight. But it was not without danger.

His worst crash came several years ago, when he flew into a 20,000-volt high-tension wire. The landing broke his back, and for six months he was paralyzed below the waist because of pressure on his spinal cord. He wasn't sure that he would ever walk again.

"In these six months, I came to understand what I wanted from life," he said in his accented English. "And I wanted only one point: to fly again."

D'Arrigo lives on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily with his wife and two children. He became obsessed with the idea of replicating a bird's flight after an experience in which an eagle came to fly beside him, unafraid, while he was spiraling up among the Alps.

This year the birds were flown and helicoptered in mid-August to the Arctic breeding grounds. On Aug. 26, with a winter storm front expected and other species of cranes in the area starting to migrate, D'Arrigo decided it was time to take off.

So far, according to the notes posted on D'Arrigo's web site (www.angelodarrigo.com), they have covered some 500 kilometers. The weather is difficult, but everything is going according to plan, "though the hardest parts are still ahead."

The Siberian crane is one of 15 crane species in the world. According to Mirande, 11 of them are threatened, and the Siberian crane -- especially its western variety -- is the closest to extinction.

There are two populations of Siberian cranes, the eastern and western. Although they are genetically identical, they do not overlap in the wild and are separated by hundreds of kilometers. Although there are an estimated 3,000 eastern Siberian cranes, their numbers also are dwindling.

If the western Siberian crane were to die out, the eastern cranes would be the only population left, making the species' continued existence all the more precarious, Zhuchkova said.

Part of the western Siberian crane population has been flying to Iran, considered by far the safer locale for the birds because it does not necessitate crossing Afghanistan. Mirande said the current project aims to redirect the rest to a preferred nesting area in Iran near the Caspian Sea that is off-limits to hunters, ironically, because it is reserved for duck trapping. So although the ducks there are in danger, she said, the much larger Siberian cranes will be safe from firearms.

Protecting the cranes is an investment in longevity. Scientists don't know exactly how long the birds would live if not disturbed by humans, Zhuchkova said, but one Siberian crane was known to have been older than 80.

"When we raise toasts here," she said of her co-workers at the breeding center, "we wish that all of us live as long as our cranes do."