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Northern Dancers: The Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaidō (Photos)

Wada Masahiro (Photographs)[Profile]

Red-crowned cranes are a traditional symbol of good fortune in Japan. Conservation efforts have brought regional population back from the brink of collapse and there is now a flourishing crane population in Hokkaidō. These photographs show the cranes’ graceful forms through the year, including the bitter cold of a northern winter.

Standing 1.5 meters tall, weigning 10 kilograms, and boasting a wingspan of 2.4 meters, the red-crowned crane or tanchō is Japan’s largest bird. While migratory red-crowned cranes can be observed seasonally in areas of Siberia, China, and the Korean peninsula, the birds in Hokkaidō remain in the same general area year round. At one time the range of Japan’s tanchō extended as far south as the main island of Honshū, but the birds are now only found in Hokkaidō. They have long been familiar and beloved birds to the Japanese, appearing in old folk tales and countless traditional paintings.

A Sanctuary for Cranes

Even so, due to rampant hunting and development of wetlands during the Meiji era (1868–1912) they were thought for a time to have died out in Japan. But in 1924, a group of red-crowned cranes were discovered near Cape Kirakotan deep inside the Kushiro Wetland in western Hokkaidō, far from the reach of hunters. The news came as a welcome surprise to people across Japan and a conservation movement slowly grew. In 1952 the government designated the cranes as a specially protected species. Meanwhile, some locals in the new village of Tsurui—founded in 1937 with a name meaning where cranes (tsuru) live (i)—and the nearby town of Akan fed the birds and conducted other conservation activities on a voluntary basis.

Of the some 1,500 tanchō in Japan, almost 1,000 live in the Kushiro Wetland. This means that over a third of the world’s 2,800 red-crowned cranes live in this area. During the winter two thirds of the birds come to Tsurui, which has breeding areas, feeding grounds, and places that remain unfrozen where the cranes can spend the night.

It appears as flocks have recovered that red-crowned cranes are no longer in danger of extinction. This has, however, brought new problems, such as damage to nearby crops due to overpopulation of feeding grounds during breeding season.

A Part of The Landscape

I was born and raised in Tsurui. When I was a child, I thought of red-crowned cranes as perfectly ordinary birds. It was only when I entered junior high school that I began to pay closer attention to them. Looking back, I think fate played a hand in leading me to start taking photographs of these magnificent birds.

Rather than just taking pictures of them on their own, I try to capture them as part of their ecosystem and natural habitat. In this sense, I seek to recreate through my photographs the indelible scenes of my childhood. It was out of a wish to take pictures of these cherished birds that I taught myself the art of photography.

Through pictures of the cranes’ graceful forms, I want to convey to people around the world the splendor of these wonderful birds. I would be delighted if my works contribute to protecting them and their natural environment.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 1, 2017. Photographs and text by Wada Masahiro. Banner photo: Cranes singing together on a cold January morning.)

  • [2017.01.01]

Born in Tsurui, Hokkaidō, in 1956. Started taking pictures of red-crowned cranes in 1968. Held his first solo exhibition Tanchō no shiki (Red-Crowned Cranes Through the Seasons) in 1985. Has since held exhibitions in Japan and around the world. In 2000 opened Hotel Taito in Tsurui as a place for nature lovers to stay. Photography collections include Kita no daichi tanchō (Northland Japanese Cranes). Member of Japan Professional Photographers Society.

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