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Dizzy heights The Birds of Heaven Travels with Cranes Peter Matthiessen 360pp Harvill Peter Matthiessen is a sensitive soul He has to be Having travelled the world in search of some of its rarest and most beautiful birds he returned home to Long Island where he attended a dinner party On hearing of the object of his odyssey a fellow guest was heard to exclaim Cranes Who cares about cranes The author of this book for one And a motley crew of birdwatchers conservationists and local people who are fighting to preserve the worlds 15 species of crane against the tide of devastation which threatens to drive many of them towards extinction There are two problems with cranes As the tallest flying birds in the world they need space and plenty of it and like all migrating birds they have little respect for national boundaries This causes particular problems in Asia where developing a cross-border conservation strategy for a bird which regularly travels between China Mongolia Korea and Japan is never going to be an easy task Indeed the politics of cranes are so sensitive that this species variously known as the Japanese or Manchurian crane has had its name changed to red-crowned crane to avoid causing offence to two of the worlds superpowers Other crane hotspots include South Africa Tibet and India all places where wildlife conservation comes pretty low on the list of priorities Not that the Americans have much to be proud of during the 19th and 20th centuries the whooping crane was driven to the very edge of extinction by hunting and has only recently begun the long slow process of recovery The current plight of cranes is especially ironic when you consider their central place in art and culture Their upright form and stately posture together with their habit of flying so high they seem to touch the heavens set them apart from other birds As the worlds leading
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