The Crane conundrum

Some headway has been made in protecting the three species of cranes present in the area, but the battle is far from won.

Blue cranes
Blue cranes

Cranes are not ordinary birds. Around the world, their spectacular mating dances have made them important symbols: of joy and the celebration of life to the Romans and Greeks, of happiness and eternal youth across Asia. In Japan, they are associated with longevity. It’s an ironic commentary on modern civilisation that cranes are everywhere under threat, and the plight of America’s Whooping Crane inspired some of the first legislation in the United States to protect an endangered species.

Verloren Valei and its surrounding areas are associated with three crane species: the Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus), the Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) and the Grey-Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum). The Wattled Crane is the most endangered of the three.

Kerryn Morrison became active in the area in the 1990s while doing fieldwork on the cranes of the escarpment for her Master’s. At the time, farmers were not “sensitised” to conservation, and crane breeding grounds were under threat from farming operations. Mining and the burgeoning trout-fishing industry, which often meant turning wetlands into dams, were also making a major impact.

Kerryn began to interact with local farmers to build awareness of the plight of the birds. Now, a decade or so later, the situation has improved markedly, says Ursula Franke, Highveld Regional Coordinator of the International Crane Foundation/ Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership. “We have managed to turn things around as regards farmers, and all three species of cranes are doing better. Most farmers are now proud of the cranes that use their land.”

In particular, says Ms Franke, the Steenkampsberg is regarded as one of the strongholds of the Blue Crane in Mpumalanga.

The plight of the Wattled Crane

While co-existence between cranes and farmers has improved, unfortunately the Wattled Crane remains severely threatened. In a desperate effort to arrest the decline, the Highlands Crane Group in partnership with Verloren Valei and the South African Crane Working Group in 1995 began a well-publicised project to raise Wattled Crane chicks on Verloren Valei. The project had some success in raising a number to the fledgling stage, in large part thanks to the efforts of Martha Makuwa, who acted as the surrogate mother.

Wattled and Grey Crowned Cranes on Lakenvlei (Photograph by Jody de Bruyn)
Wattled and Grey Crowned Cranes on Lakenvlei (Photograph by Jody de Bruyn)

A total of 13 birds were released into the wild, the last three into a flock in KZN, while others were taken to bird parks where they are still living and producing offspring. Many of those introduced into the wild were killed. Collisions with powerlines, hunting and even poisoning were just some of the causes of the high rate of mortality, according to Frans Krige, the Land Use Advisor/ Environmental Impact Assessment scientist resident in Dullstroom.

At present, there is only one pair of Wattled Cranes in the newly proclaimed Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment, and it’s not yet clear whether they will breed, says Ms Franke.

Anybody who has anything to do with wildlife or conservation circles will not be surprised to know that there is considerable controversy around what is driving the decline in the Wattled Cranes, and particularly why they are not using Verloren Valei itself.

According to Frans Krige, when he arrived at Verloren Valei in 1993, four pairs of Wattled Cranes were present on Verloren Valei, with a further four within the broader Belfast/ Dullstroom area. This was a substantial decline from 1980, when there were reportedly 12 pairs on Verloren Valei and 33 in total across the Belfast/ Dullstroom area.

What caused this calamitous decline in the population of Wattled Cranes in the area?

Broadly speaking, the answer would be the habitat destruction across the area. As noted above, mining and trout-fishing are both culprits. In addition, the proliferation of lodges close to breeding grounds does not help. A number are lost to collisions with power lines, and there is even still some hunting and poisoning of these birds.

Within the Reserve, some believe that the removal of cattle was a negative factor, because bulk grazers create the short grasslands that the cranes need to forage successfully. However, as Mr Krige points out, cattle were still present on the Reserve in 1993, and Black Wildebeest were introduced to replace them—although Eland would have been preferred.

“Our observations are that the destruction of habitat generally is responsible for the decline in the Wattled Cranes—because they migrate between the Steenkampsberg and KwaZulu-Natal, they are dependent on the availability of the right sorts of habitat in both places, and along their migration routes,” Mr Krige says. “Unmarked powerlines are also a major factor.”

One thing is clear: ecology is all about the connection between life forms, and no one species or geographical area can be considered in isolation. The decline in the Wattled Cranes, and in cranes generally, is an indication of the pressure that the increase in one species—humanity—is placing on the system.

Eco solutions set to imperil Blue Cranes

Ironically, the proposed industrial wind farm along the slopes of the Sneeuberg, on the Southern Great Escarpment, just 22 kilometres from the High Karroo Park, is set to threaten what the members of the Nama Karoo Foundation call one of the last few wilderness areas of the country, and home to the world’s largest populations of Blue Cranes.

Blue Cranes (Photograph by Mark Drysdale)
Blue Cranes (Photograph: Mark Drysdale)

The growth in wind turbines is a direct result of the excessive focus on carbon as an agent of anthropogenic climate change, to the exclusion of any other conservation topics. These turbines have already proved to have negative effects on the environment. The Foundation’s newsletter says that “One 68 turbine WEF [wind energy facility] elsewhere killed 50 Golden eagles in 1 year. Tortoises die from the low frequencies. Bat lungs implode, creating insect problems for farmers. New research shows bees are affected up to 200 km away. 65 km of new power lines are planned too.”

The legal fight against this installation, which will apparently anyway be using outdated technology superseded in Europe, seems to have reached its end. The combination of big business and humanity’s insistence on the primacy of its needs is once again proving fatal to biodiversity.

Looking at the broader picture, ill-considered investment on renewable energy, and its impact on wildlife and poverty alleviation, is listed as one of five reasons that South Africa is not attracting the foreign and local direct investment it needs—read “SA on brink of Venezuelan-style economic decline. Here’s five reasons why” for a challenge to knee-jerk environmental activism. The problems we face require some hard thinking, and the solutions will not be as easy as many seem to think they are. 

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