By Mike and Ann Scott, Namibia Crane Working Group
They’re large, elegant and striking. Graceful flyers, they seal a lifelong pair bond with an elaborate, jazzy courtship dance. Worldwide, 15 crane species are universally regarded as symbols of peace. And yet, worldwide, crane numbers are declining.
Cranes are distributed in five main areas in Namibia: Etosha National Park, North Central, Kavango, Caprivi and Bushmanland. In Kavango, they are considered ‘special birds’ by tradition, and treated with respect. Their presence symbolises happiness, good rains, good harvests, good luck and God’s blessings. Villagers used to imitate the dance of the cranes for up to two days at a time, decorating their heads with feathers. Women also used to sing a song about cranes dancing when rocking the baby. In Owambo, Grey Crowned Cranes are believed to predict good luck, such as high rainfall or a bumper harvest, and anyone finding a crane’s egg is regarded as a lucky person.
Charismatic but elusive, cranes are sensitive to human disturbance and their numbers are also declining in Namibia. Our population of 60 Blue Cranes is classified as Critically Endangered, possibly declining; the global population is around 20 000. The Wattled Crane is also Critically Endangered in Namibia, although its population (200) is thought to be more stable. The global population, however, is only 8 000 birds. The Grey Crowned Crane is Near Threatened in this country, and its population of >50 is regarded as stable/declining; overall numbers are 58 000–77 000.
Because cranes are not often observed in Namibia, their value may easily be overlooked. Yet these potential flagship species are important indicators of the health of wetland and grassland environments and, apart from their cultural value, they have considerable economic potential as a focus for bird-based tourism.
An action plan is initiated
In May 2004, due to growing concerns about the continued survival of Namibia’s cranes, representatives from our five crane areas met for the first time in Etosha. This workshop was a joint initiative of the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), the Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism (MET) and the African Wattled Crane Programme (AWAC) of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
As a result, the Namibia Crane Working Group (NCWG) was established with the vision: Cranes and people sharing habitats in harmony in Namibia. We have all been working steadily to achieve this vision by means of the Namibia Crane Action Plan, which is aimed at:
• co-ordinating conservation efforts and promoting networking;
• obtaining information and data on cranes;
• promoting conservation awareness/education;
• conserving crane populations and habitats;
• promoting the economic value of cranes and their habitats;
• building capacity; and
• developing area-based crane management strategies.
What progress is being made?
Communication is ongoing with a good working relationship at both local and international level, and our circle of supporters is widening continually. We receive regular contributions to our newsletter, Namibia Crane News (available on our website). A large, follow-up crane workshop in Bushmanland in February 2005 provided a platform for reporting back, evaluating progress and doing strategic planning, while in 2006 a series of smaller workshops was held to discuss regional crane strategies.
Crane counts are already taking place in some areas (such as Etosha and Lake Oponono, Bushmanland, Mahangu) as part of a long-term monitoring programme. In Kavango and North Central, local crane working groups initiated awareness surveys. A crane data-recording sheet has been implemented by communal conservancies in Caprivi, as part of the national Event Book monitoring system. In Bushmanland, Wattled Cranes at Nyae Nyae Pans were the focus of a study by a student from the Polytechnic of Namibia and a successful aerial/ground survey in May 2006, in partnership with Save the Rhino Trust. We are investigating the fitting of satellite telemetry to Wattled Cranes in this area in 2007, as part of an international programme we are implementing in co-operation with the EWT/ICF Partnership, BirdLife Botswana and other players.
Red Data Book and popular species accounts have been compiled for our three crane species. We are distributing this information, promoting public involvement and encouraging youth nature clubs. In February 2005, members of Wilderness Safaris Namibia helped us promote crane conservation through a Children in the Wilderness programme at the Tsumkwe Junior Secondary School, while the Makena Ecosystem Protection and Environmental Education Club in Kavango is one of our more recent partners.
Our new 20-page crane activity booklet contains basic information on Namibia’s three crane species, with lively illustrations by our talented artist, Kasha Ostbloom. The main text is in English, with key parts translated into five different languages by our local crane groups. Kasha has also produced a beautiful design that can be used for an awareness poster and a T-shirt, and we are looking for a sponsor to implement this in 2007.
In Caprivi, the Kasika and Impalila conservancies are leading in bird-based tourism, including guided birding trails. They were also involved in establishing the Caprivi Wetlands Paradise Route, which has a strong emphasis on birding/cranes/wetlands, in co-operation with Open Africa (www.openafrica.org).
Two representatives of the NCWG participated in the AWAC training workshop in South Africa in November 2004. An entry-level field-guiding course with a special focus on wetland, bird and crane conservation was presented at the Bushmanland workshop in February 2005 by WSN, co-funded by USAID. The practical training included a crane count at the Nyae Nyae Pans, led by local MET staff. WSN presented a further guide-training course in Caprivi in 2005, in co-operation with Conservation InternationaI and Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC).
All of our crane areas now have active groups that have taken ownership of their own crane conservation programmes. In the case of the Kasika and Impalila conservancies, this takes the form of the East Caprivi Floodplain Bird Club that was established in partnership with surrounding lodges.
Namibia’s own Blue Crane project
For much of 2006/2007, the spotlight falls on Namibia’s Blue Cranes. This is the world’s most range-restricted crane species, occurring mainly in South Africa. The curious, highly isolated breeding population within Etosha and to the north poses a genetic and conservation puzzle. According to preliminary sampling, these birds may be genetically different from South African cranes, begging the question: how can they remain in Namibia with apparently very little intermixing with South African birds? Secondly, what is special about these grasslands and how do cranes survive in a predator-rich area such as Etosha?
The project comprises a national census; a genetics study involving this population and others in SA; and an ecological and behavioural study. We hope to compare the conservation and ecological factors that have shaped this population with what is known about other Blue Crane populations, as the basis for a species management plan for these birds in Namibia. Our collaborators are the MET, Polytechnic of Namibia, NNF, The Overberg Explorer, WSN, the University of Cape Town, the EWT/ICF Partnership and other interested bodies.
A strong and motivated project team has already completed two combined aerial/ground surveys. In April 2006, at the end of an exceptionally wet season, some 60 adult and seven juvenile Blue Cranes were recorded, more than half in the Lake Oponono area north of Etosha. This total compares well with the previous estimate of 49 adults plus 11 juveniles in 1994. During the April 2006 survey, the MET, assisted by an enthusiastic group of crane conservationists from North Central, fitted two pairs of chicks with large, green leg bands with an individual reference code. In August 2006, a dry-season count produced only 29 cranes, again with the majority recorded north of Etosha. Two of the chicks ringed near Namutoni on 26 April 2006 were re-sighted 50 kilometres away on 22 August 2006 at Andoni waterhole, where the family group is now observed regularly.
Rather than provide answers, these two surveys have raised further questions about crane movements and habitat use. We hope to complete two comparable surveys, in April and August 2007. It is a priority to fit several cranes with satellite and radio telemetry devices, and to mark more chicks with colour rings. We hope to source suitable students to assist with the research, and to enlist the assistance of park visitors to report re-sightings of such marked birds.
These actions are well timed to coincide with the centenary of Etosha in March 2007, for which the Blue Crane is an appropriate flagship species!
We would like to thank our many friends – both in Namibia’s crane areas and elsewhere – for the ongoing interest, encouragement and support over the years, and in particular the NNF, for ongoing funding through the Swedish Local Environment Fund.
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.