Photographic exhibition charts a remarkable seven-year journey in images across the wetlands of north-eastern China with the endangered red crowned crane
22 November 2019 | Marcus Reubenstein
“In Chinese culture the red crowned crane is a symbol of good fortune, it represents grace, beauty loyalty integrity and a good life,” says 60-year old Wang Keju, who’s devoted nearly half of his life to observing, and preserving, one of the true wonders of bird life.
What began as an interest in the wetlands of the Zhalong Nature Reserve on the outskirts of the city of Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province, became a hobby, a passion and life’s dedication. Such is Wang’s dedication his work has, above all of these things, become a legacy for both humanity and for the magnificent cranes that make their homes in this pristine wilderness.
Standing at 1.5 metres in height the red crowned crane is the largest bird, and among the largest of animals, in its habitat. Wolves, foxes, wild dogs and lynxes all are wary when approaching the red crowned crane, particularly when they are nursing their young.
This lack of dominant predators and fearless demeanour, in part, explains why this crane can be so comfortable around humans. Despite their apex position the bird is endangered with estimates of around 3,000 remaining in the wild, with around six hundred living in China, around one-thousand in Korea and a population of 1,400 in Hokkaido, Japan.
Lives of devotion
They have a life-span of up to 70 years and they mate for the first time at around three or four years of age. A mating pair then remain partners for life, as Wang calls them “husband and wife”.
For seven years he followed the same pair, named ‘Dream’ and ‘Cloud’, first encountering them when they were in their late teens and following their journey of love and parenthood. On so many levels, this is a story of adventure, hope, triumph, tragedy and love.
As Wang says, he saw a life in them with numerous parallels to the struggle of life for ordinary people, bounded by extraordinary devotion.
Dream, the male, and Cloud, the female, were born of a devotion that began before they were even hatched. In 1982 they came into the world as a part of a breeding program for this endangered bird. They were hand-reared by a young woman named Xu Xiujuan, an environmentalist who’d devoted her life to the red crowned crane.
Xu was still a teenager when she hatched and nursed her first cranes, in 1987 one of her cranes became lost in the Zhalong wetlands, she waded into the cold water and searched for hours. Eventually she grew more and more exhausted until she could physically no longer go on, unable to return to the shore Xu drowned in marshes, she was just 23.
Her memory has been preserved in famous Chinese song, A True Story, and in 2015 was immortalised by the National Ballet of China through the production of its ballet The Crane Whisperer.
A new friendship
In 1999 Wang encountered Dream for the first time, he would travel the 20-kilometre distance from his home to the protected wetlands and feed the cranes by hand with small fish. The birds would scramble to eagerly pluck the fish from his hands. “Only one would not rush over,” Wang says, “he strolled over and only took the food after stroking my hand with his beak to show gratitude.”
Wang gave him the name Dream and soon he met the crane’s lifelong female companion who he named Cloud.
It was then he took his camera with him to capture and document what he still calls a great love story between these two birds and the lifelong friendship he shared with them. “One winter,” he says, “Cloud broke her beak and was unable to clean her feathers and take care of herself; every day Dream would carefully preen his wife until she once again grew healthy.”
She was also unable to catch food and, seeing that Cloud had become weak, a much younger female crane arrived attempting to court Dream away from his mate. She remained for some time, Wang says, “This younger female was envious but I could see she admired Dream because of his devotion.”
Circle of life
The first spring, Wang witnessed the laying of Cloud’s two eggs and he captured their incubation, a duty shared equally by the male and female partners of the red crowned crane. Thirty days later the first of two male chicks were hatched. One of the chicks was visibly weak and could not survive its early life, it died on a windy and rainy night.
“The parents consoled each other in sorrow,” Wang says. “Their eyes were filled with sadness and mourning.” He observed that long after their remaining chick had matured and was able to take care of itself, his mother would still feed him.
The following spring, they gave birth again, these two chicks, again males, would survive and thrive under the love and guidance of their parents.
When they reach one year of age red crowned cranes are forced from their nests by their parents, to fend for themselves until they too find a mate. Wang recalls this was a painful experience for Cloud who would turn her back and never look at her young when they finally flew from the nest.
A lost love
In March 2005, Wang arrived at the wetlands to see and photograph his beloved cranes. Only Dream would heed his call and Wang soon realised that Cloud had gone. He says it was clear that Dream had not known of his partner’s fate and that he and his latest brood of sons began to call out in vain.
Just as a young woman named Xu Xiujian had tried two decades earlier, Wang tracked Dream’s journey through marshlands, following the flight path is his old and hopelessly inadequate car. The car broke down and became stuck, he had to walk through the snow to make his way out of the wetlands.
Seeing Dream on his own, another younger female attempted to court the forlorn crane. She persisted and he completely ignored her advances. Dream had lost his will, he stopped eating and grew weaker himself.
Wang continued his search and after three weeks he found the body of Cloud, she’d been attacked a killed by foxes.
The last flight
As summer approached, Wang continued to travel to the wetlands with his camera, Dream had regained his strength but had lost his vitality. The once majestic crane stood apart from a large flock, Wang described his movement as a ‘stagger’ into the high reeds of the marshland as if he was trying to retrace the steps of his life with Cloud.
After photographing him for a short time, Wang says, “He let out three screeches, waved his wings and took to the air. Dream left his home and has never returned.”
One man’s journey
Wang Keju, is not a trained scientist or an environmentalist, nor was he trained as a professional photographer. Each of his images was taken on an old film camera with a 120mm lens – most wildlife photographers would use 400mm and up 600mm lens that can cost up to $10,000.
Wang began his journey as an employee of the CRRC railway company. With more than 180,000 employees it is the world’s biggest manufacturer of railway cars and carriages, Wang worked as a technical writer for the marketing department. After witnessing his devotion to the crane and the wetlands that neighboured the Qiqihar his bosses decided to move him to a new department.
They gave him a new job, to document, promote and protect the red crowned crane for this and future generations. The company helped him establish a special crane protection centre, and though he recently retired they continue to financially support his mission.
CRRC published a magnificent pictorial book telling the story of Wang and his life with Dream and Cloud. The company also helped him create an incredible exhibition of his work which he has brought half-way round the world to Sydney.
His passion has also expanded into conversation, he is now the Director of the Zhalong Crane Protection and Education Center; and a council member of both China’s National Crane Research Center and the China Environmental Culture Promotion Society.
Wildlife photography is a pursuit of patience and devotion, since 1999, in total Wang has spent some 4,000 hours wading through the wetlands with his camera. A journey he continues as he embarks on a new chapter documenting the lives of another species, the black neck crane.
A love not forgotten
Though Dream and Crane are no longer a part of his life, they have become the embodiment of his three decades’ long journey. Not only did they capture his heart but that of family, friends, his company, his community and now people on the other side of the world.
Though seven years might be thought of as a small part of a long-life, it was seven years that captured the essence of a life well-lived; poignantly summed up by this old man with a camera and an undying love. “It is always the main theme of human beings to pursue happy love, and to have loyal love and dignity is also a theme. In memory of the loyal love of Dream and Crane I have my own dream to preserve their story and their love.”
The “Love Between Two Cranes” Photo Exhibition was part of the Chinese Cultural Festival at Sydney’s ICC Exhibition Centre Darling Harbour