In a once-of-a-kind endeavor, a conservationist is planning to travel across 11 different countries, over a distance of 7,250 kilometers (4,500 miles), from the Russian Arctic all the way to the United Kingdom. She’ll be following the migration of a threatened species of swan, but not from the ground: She’ll be paragliding alongside them the entire way.
As reported by BBC News, Sacha Dench will be using a paramotor – a paraglider buoyed up by a motorized propeller – to land each night close to their resting spots in order to document their habits and behaviors. The mission will begin this September.
Following these flocks of Bewick’s swans, some of which have GPS tags, will be nothing short of incredibly dangerous; she’ll traverse over almost completely inhospitable tundra, a desolate, isolated region with extreme weather and dangerous wildlife. A similar expedition in the past has ended, sadly, in a fatality.
Flight of the Swans. WWT
“The first 1,000 kilometers [620 miles] have no roads, so there’s no option for a ground crew there,” Dench told BBC Radio 4. “It’s very exposed, and it’s got everything from polar bears to wolves. The only place to shelter there will be small huts that hunters have built over time.”
Temperatures at the start of this journey will regularly hover around a truly chilly -9°C (16°F). The winds will be often blowing against her, and each flight, which will frequently commence at around 3 a.m., will last at least three hours. A back-up team will follow on behind her in case she gets into trouble, and they’ll also help her communicate with remote outposts when she lands.
The adventurous conservationist is doing this for the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), a charity whose patrons include Sir David Attenborough, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and Dame Judi Dench – to whom she is actually related. Known as “Flight of the Swans,” she hopes to shed some light on why these rather beautiful creatures have been in serious decline over the last 20 years.
Dench about to take flight. Flight of the Swans/WWT
These swans, known by their scientific name as Cygnus bewickii, arrive in the U.K. in the middle of October after breeding in the frigid expanses of Siberia. Once they've fed themselves on leftover crops in fields, such as potatoes and grain, they fly back to Siberia in mid-March, sustaining themselves on aquatic plants and grass before breeding recommences.
Apart from using this daring flight to assess the strength of the migrating swans, it will also be used to create a documentary aimed at highlighting their plight. There are only around 16,000 left in the wild, down from about 32,000 in the early 1990s.
Although it’s not clear why this population crash is happening, wildlife experts point to a perfect storm of overzealous hunting, habitat loss, predation by Arctic foxes, and man-made climate change. Dench ultimately hopes that all the countries along the migration route, which include Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, will sign up to an action plan to save the species from disappearing altogether.
The expedition map. Flight of the Swans/WWT
“This expedition is marvelously imaginative and adventurous, and a fitting project in WWT’s 70th anniversary,” Attenborough said to the WWT. “That swans should fly from Russia to come here is surely a kind of parable – we can live in harmony with nature and it’s up to us to do so.”
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