The '5c bird' receives million-dollar attention

The project has secured nearly 100 000 hectares of habitat for cranes. (Photo: Tony Heald)

The project has secured nearly 100 000 hectares of habitat for cranes. (Photo: Tony Heald)

The eastern escarpment of South Africa is home to the endangered grey crowned crane and the critically endangered wattled crane, both of which are entirely dependent on their environment in order to survive.

Bit by bit, their habitat is being depleted — as much as 50% of their natural land has gone. Using these two cranes as a flagship project to measure the overall success of the areas, EWT Securing Cranes set out to restore key areas through land custodianship.   

Through the project, they secured protection for nearly 100 000 hectares of grassland and wetland habitat, core regions for these cranes.

With cranes, there is a particular urgency to secure breeding grounds and to provide areas where hatching can be protected or monitored.  

“We begin by talking to landowners, creating a relationship and getting a sense of what value they could get and how this could work for them. Then we go through the process of assessing commitment and get feedback and public opinion. It’s important that the working landscape, especially for cattle or sheep, is compatible with biodiversity plans,” says Kerryn Morrison of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. 

 EWT has secured land in a number of areas. In the Southern Drakensberg, they established three new conservancies and assisted with the declaration of several in the Beaumont Nature Reserve. Recently they worked with farmers in Cedarville to conserve over 14 000 hectares of East Griqualand grassland and eastern temperate wetlands.

In Mpumalanga they worked closely with Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and BirdLife South Africa to protect critical habitat, while ensuring that the people who live in the area are part of the process and benefit from the outcomes.  

“We facilitated the proclamation of 59 000 hectares of the Chrissiesmeer Lakes district, declared as the Chris–siesmeer Protected Environment, with 60 landowners using the Biodiversity Stewardship approach. All 60 landowners have committed to the conservation of the natural grasslands, wetlands, pans and lakes in the area.” 

In 2012, the Chrissiesmeer Crane Festival was launched to celebrate cranes and their habitats, resulting in an increase in tourism that stimulated economic development in the area. 

They also launched the Eco Ranger programme in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, equipping 20 rangers with skills as custodians and species managers.

“We need to have management plans in place — to be aware of where the power cables are, make sure there aren’t poisons, there is live trade to worry about and we watch the eggs to ensure that the chicks hatch and are cared for,” says Morrison. 

“The cranes are threatened a number of ways so it’s very much about creating a safe space, especially for the cranes to breed. In the 1970s there was a steep decline. From the 1990s we’ve managed to stem the decline. Our last survey in KwaZulu-Natal showed that the wattled crane is at 311 — the highest number in decades.”