Imagine the daunting task of trying to establish a set of international conservation measures for 15 different migrating crane species, 11 of which are endangered. Wildlife officials, ornithologists and concerned citizens from five continents are currently trying to do just that, setting aside language and political differences to protect the magnificent birds that are the subject of myth, superstition and poetry.
In The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen, author of more than two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the National Book Award winner The Snow Leopard, gives a first-hand report of the small but dedicated worldwide effort to protect cranes. In Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia and North America, the author accompanies conservationists as they search, count and tag species that have been known to migrate 3,100 miles across 20,000-foot mountains. Resting and nesting areas include dangerous air spaces, like war-torn Afghanistan, where, the author noted in 1993, "the recent emergence of well-armed tribesmen of the Taliban, who doubtless shoot at cranes, has not improved things. But not all the news is bad. Bhutan's Royal Society for the Protection of Nature has outlawed crane hunting and imposed a life imprisonment sentence for violators. Tireless work by "craniac George Archibald, who wrote the book's Preface and is the co-director of the International Crane Foundation, has led to the signing of a joint pact by Russia and China a tenuous but promising first step in creating key wildlife reserves for cranes in those and perhaps other neighboring countries. In Mongolia, Matthiessen receives a warning from the country's premier ornithologist, Dr. Ayurzaryun Bold. "We hope you are tough enough to make this journey, Bold says. In The Birds of Heaven, Matthiessen proves once again that he is indeed tough enough, allowing readers to benefit from his tireless reportage, his decades of wildlife study and his deft prose.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys (Washington State University Press).