TAIPEI - Just over a month ago, commuters emerging from a busy subway station in Taipei were greeted by a strange sight: a rare Siberian crane standing on the sidewalk, apparently quite comfortable with the crowd it was attracting.
Only 4,000 such cranes, also known as snow cranes, exist in the world, and when word got out that one was walking the streets of Taipei, city officials quickly dispatched police officers to stand guard until the bird could be moved to the zoo.
There it was determined that the bird was the same one that landed a year earlier in Jinshan, a coastal district 30 kilometers north of Taipei, where it has resided ever since.
Now 140 centimeters tall and weighing 6.5 kilograms, the 2-year-old male, nicknamed “Jin Ho” (meaning “wonderful” in Taiwanese), lost his way during his 5,000-kilometer autumn migration from Siberia to central China, detouring east to the coast and eventually Taiwan.
Jin Ho is not the first crane to visit the island, but he is the first Siberian crane, a variety the International Union for Conservation of Nature designates as critically endangered.
He is the first to be assigned his own security apparatus, including guards and surveillance cameras in Jinshan, to protect him from dogs and other pests, and he is the first to have his own Internet fan site, two books published about him and an upcoming documentary.
Such celebrity seemed to have mattered little on Dec. 19, however, as Jin Ho, hardly a teenager in human years and perhaps a little bored, set out to spend a Saturday night in Taipei.
While wild cranes are rare in Taiwan, sightings have become more frequent in recent years, raising concerns among experts such as Chiu Ming-yuan, deputy chief executive officer of Taiwan’s Ecological Engineering Development Foundation.
“While it is unclear why they are here, we do know that global warming and climate change have undermined their traditional habitats and food sources,” Chui said.
Pollution and habitat destruction have also disrupted crane populations in central China, prompting some to suggest that the displacement of individual cranes such as Jin Ho may signal the beginning of a more sustained shift in migratory routes.
Japan, too, has seen an increase in lost cranes taking up temporary residence in the country, including Siberian cranes and other rare varieties.
A male red-crowned crane appeared in Akita Prefecture in May 2008, prompting Hitoshi Katoh to join with other residents in establishing the Akita Red-Crowned Crane Association for its protection and care.
Born a year earlier in China, the bird, named “Tan” by locals, stayed for two winters until a female arrived in March 2010 and the pair departed together a few days later.
In 2014, several hundred kilometers away in Shimane Prefecture, another crane landed at the farm of Tomihiro Kuroda, this one a young Siberian female which, like the others, also lost its way during its southern migration.
After more than a year of Shimane hospitality, Kuroda’s Siberian crane was joined by two white-naped cranes and, after a short time, the threesome also left, presumably to find the flocks they had been separated from on the Chinese mainland.
Hearing of Jin Ho, Katoh and Kuroda visited Taiwan last month to attend a meeting organized by the EEDF for people to share information and coordinate conservation efforts.
Security tops everyone’s list, with air traffic a problem, as well as predators, including humans. One red-crowned crane in Taiwan was wounded by gunfire a few years ago before authorities could provide it with protective sanctuary.
Diet is also a concern, with the EEDF initiating a program to encourage farmers to adopt organic practices so their crops are safe for cranes to forage.
Meanwhile, in consultation with the EEDF, Taiwan’s government decided last month not to return Jin Ho and other lost cranes to their native habitats. Better to let nature take its course, it was decided, while providing material support where necessary.
Yet if people are helping cranes, the birds also enrich the communities where they reside, however temporarily.
Katoh told the story of the Akita association, where meetings to organize care for red-crowned Tan helped heal a community long divided by a bitter 40-year-old land dispute.
In Taiwan, farmers growing rice on organic plots have branded their products, harvesting what Jin Ho leaves behind for Jinshan school lunches.
Nine farmers have signed up for the program, with the EEDF hoping to expand production from 3.5 hectares last year to 10 this year, and eventually to 30.
As with the film and books’ proceeds, which are reinvested in new projects, profit is less of a motive than raising awareness of issues concerning conservation and food safety.
However, this does not fully explain the attention given to Jin Ho, whose ability to inspire the Taiwanese public has been “impressive,” as Kuroda put it with characteristic Japanese reserve.
Why such enthusiasm, especially for a bird that only arrived a year ago, and might well be gone tomorrow?
Being photogenic helps, as do stunts such as showing up on a Saturday night in a busy Taipei street.
However, the best account of what Taiwanese people see in Jin Ho comes from Huang Cheng-jun, a third generation Jinshan rice farmer, who learned organic methods to ensure the food in his fields is safe for Jin Ho to eat. He also began growing lotus and water bamboo to add variety to his diet.
“It spreads its wings when it sees me, and sometimes pecks my hat as if it wants to play,” Huang said. “He is like my son.”
At a time when small farms fail as a matter of course, other economic news is invariably bad, politics offers only cynicism, and the future promises only more of the same, Jin Ho is the little guy who survives, albeit precariously and with the help of other little guys.
Of course, Jin Ho will leave some day, as all sons do.
But others will follow, and when they do, the fields of Jinshan, Akita and Shimane will be ready.