Cranes rising

Why the crane breeding project at Verloren Valei was terminated, and some good news about growth in the numbers of Wattled Cranes.

By James van den Heever

Floater flock landing in a wetland in the KZN Midlands (Photograph: Daniel Dolpire)

In an earlier article, “The crane conundrum”, I explored some of the issues relating to crane conservation. Since then, I’ve been wondering why the Wattled Crane breeding project at Verloren Valei was halted—so I contacted Kerryn Morrison, the original motivator for the breeding project, to find out more. She is now Director of Africa for the International Crane Foundation and Senior Manager: Africa at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

She explained that the project to rear and release Wattled Cranes at Verloren Valei was halted in 2000 when it became clear that raising the chicks and releasing them was not enough: they also required a flock of non-breeding cranes (a floater flock) into which they could be accepted. The flock would act as foster parents and socialize the chicks as wild cranes.

Remember how the Ugly Duckling’s happy ending only came when he was accepted by a passing flight of swans?

“Unfortunately the Mpumalanga Highlands do not have a floater flock of Wattled Cranes—there are only breeding pairs who do not accept younger cranes into their family group. It was then that it was agreed that all future releases would happen in KwaZulu-Natal where there are several floater flocks,” she explains. “A conservation partner of ours, the KwaZulu Natal Crane Foundation (KZNCF), has an ideal facility down there that supports hatching and rearing of chicks—very close by to where the floater flocks move.” 

KZN Crane Foundation isolation rearing centre (Photograph: Daniel Dolpire)

The KwaZulu-Natal breeding facility is located at the Usher Conservation Centre facility just outside Nottingham Road, and is owned and run by the KZNCF. It was opened in May 2014, and its distinctive domed exercise pens resemble giant iQukwane (Zulu beehive huts).

The facility includes incubation and hatcher rooms, a brooder room and individual indoor night pens, to accommodate up to seven chicks per breeding season. The adjoining naturalised outdoor enclosure allows the chicks to explore in safety, whilst the large dome is a predator-proof exercise pen, containing a simulated wetland environment with pools and wetland plants designed to allow the chicks to learn to forage and select appropriate natural food.

Just as at Verloren Valei, the chicks are reared by costumed “mums’ who use hand puppets in the form of adult crane heads to feed their offspring. For more information, visit the site of wildlife photographer Daniel Dolpire, who is currently working on a project to photograph South Africa’s cranes or the KwaZulu Natal Crane Foundation.

Crane chick being fed by its puppet mum at the KZN Crane Foundation site in Nottingham Road (Photograph: Daniel Dolpire)

Populations increasing somewhat

Ms Morrison adds, though, that all rearing for release has been halted as the wild population of Wattled Cranes in South Africa is increasing steadily—excellent news, although this bird is very far from safe yet.

The latest aerial survey in KwaZulu-Natal (2018) recorded a total of 380 Wattled Cranes—367 adults, 3 juveniles and 10 chicks—the highest number in 25 years. The 2017 count was 313.

As regards other cranes, the numbers for KwaZulu-Natal were 1 295 Blue Cranes (1 217 in 2017) and 3 132 Grey-Crowned Cranes (2 981 in 2017).[1] There are no recent accurate national figures, but estimates from a few years back were approximately 5,500 to 6,500 Grey-Crowned Cranes and 30,000 to 35,000 Blue Cranes.

Tanya Smith, Southern Africa Regional Manager: African Crane Conservation Programme for the International Crane Foundation / Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership, says that the KwaZulu-Natal figures for Wattled Crane are likely to represent 95% of the total national population given that there only a handful of pairs left in Mpumalanga, the Free State and the Eastern Cape combined.

The number of Wattled Crane breeding sites is also increasing by about one to two sites per year. There is also strong evidence from other crane species around the world that released birds are not as productive as wild birds, and yet take up suitable nesting sites, in turn affecting overall breeding productivity.

“We are hoping that over time, the population in KwaZulu-Natal will increase to appoint that they will again start widening their distribution and spread up to Mpumalanga. We know from previous ringing exercises that there is movement between the Dullstroom and KwaZulu-Natal Midlands,” she says.

What can landowners do?

One of the reasons for the small but steady increase in Wattled Crane numbers must be a growing awareness of the need to protect these birds on the part of local landowners. Here are some of the things enlightened landowners can do to provide a crane-friendly environment. Who knows, if the KwaZulu-Natal Wattled Crane population becomes sufficiently large, we might start to see a floater flock moving into the Steenkampsberg:

  • Protect the habitat. Both Grey-Crowned and Wattled cranes will only nest and raise chicks in wetlands. Wattled Cranes generally nest in winter, so they really need perennial wetlands. It’s therefore important not to drain wetlands, and to burn permanent wetlands every three to four years to keep the growth in check.
  • Alert the Endangered Wildlife Trust (crane@ewt.org.za) if they have any powerlines on their property that kill birds. The Trust will then fit marking devices on the powerlines to make them safe.
  • Report any crane sightings also on crane@ewt.org.za.

[1] Endangered Wildlife Trust and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Minimum population size and distribution of Blue, Grey Crowned and Wattled Cane in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, determined by an aerial survey, 2018.

Photographs by Daniel Dolpire, with text by David Allan, The Sentinels: Cranes of South Africa is published by HPH Publishing, Johannesburg. It is available at a special price of R600 excluding postage from ddolpire@me.com

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