East Africa has geographically been an important bird area since it lies on the migratory path — Africa-Eurasia flyaway system — of some of the world’s unique bird species.
Recent studies however show that in the past two decades in Kenya and Uganda, the population of the Grey Crowned Crane has dropped by 80 per cent with their nesting sites most affected by human-wildlife conflict.
The birds are spending more time looking out for human and livestock encroachment instead of tending to their eggs and chicks. This has translated into high mortality rate of crane chicks and subsequently a drop in the population of mature birds.
Cranes, like many other aquatic species, are indicators of the state of the environment. When we stop seeing cranes, it will mean that there are no more wetlands, an ecosystem crucial to the survival of the birds and to some extent humans too as an important source of freshwater.
In Kenya, Lake Ol Bolossat, a pretty little lake on the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges in central Kenya, is home to about 900 Grey Crowned Cranes, and is listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA).
To date, there are over 12,000 IBAs worldwide, selected using an internationally agreed set of criteria by BirdLife International based on their importance for the conservation of bird populations.
Until recently, this quaint lake has been an important breeding ground for the Grey Crowned Cranes in Kenya.
During the breeding season, between July and February, hundreds of cranes flock here and put on a spectacular display of courtship dances.
But recent monitoring by the Nyahururu Bird Club/Cranes Conservation Volunteers, founded by local conservationist George Ndung’u, tells a different story.
Out of the population of about 900 birds that flocked to the lake, only two chicks were hatched and fledged in the past two breeding seasons — between December 2015 and February 2017.
Researchers are not in agreement over the numbers. Kerryn Morrison of International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust partnership based in South Africa, who has been studying cranes for more than two decades, says, “The difference in flock size this year [down by 76] may well not be a real decline. It may be that part of the flock is somewhere else and may return next year. Cranes do not always flock to the same area every year. Often we see a big flock split up and smaller flocks are then found at several sites.”
Ndung’u concurs. “The fact is that we know very little about our cranes in Kenya.”
Uganda has the largest population of Grey Crowned Cranes, also known as the Crested Crane.
The birds are known to breed in swamps, but a combination of increasing human population and improved agricultural techniques is leading to the draining of swamps often to grow rice in eastern Uganda, and for dairy farming and vegetable cultivation in the southwest.
Swamps in eastern and southwestern Uganda are the major critical areas for the survival of the crane. Last year, to mark the country’s 50 years of Independence, parliament launched a fundraising drive to save the Crested Crane, Uganda’s national symbol.
NatureUganda develops and implements a range of programmes and activities aimed at the conservation of sites and species. The Grey Crowned Crane is one the species that NatureUganda aims to conserve under the Cranes and Wetlands Conservation Project.
But all is not lost. Ndung’u attended a telemetry course in Germany in August, supported by Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union and its partner in nature conservation, Naturschutzbund Deutschland.
The course was particularly tailored for those working on the ground with groups engaged in cranes conservation efforts.
“We were trained on how to handle cranes safely, ringing using the latest coloured rings, and fitting of satellite transmitters on cranes,” he said.
This course is a precursor to a stakeholders’ workshop to be held in December in Nairobi, bringing together NABU, the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust from South Africa, the National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya, CCV, and Kipsaina Wetland and Cranes Conservation Group in Western Kenya, to map out an action plan for the survival of Lake Ol Bolossat and its crane population.
On the sidelines of the workshop, a visit to the lake will see the birds fitted with radio tracking, the first such project for the Grey Crowned Cranes in Kenya.
“It will help us monitor the birds and answer questions like: Are crane populations crashing or are they breaking into smaller flocks around the country’s wetlands?” said Ndung’u.
But the Grey Crowned Crane isn’t the only bird in decline around Lake Ol Bolossat. Sharpe’s Longclaw — a bird only found in Kenya — is listed as critically endangered. A grassland bird, much of its habitat in Kenya has been converted to farms or settled on.
“Lake Ol Bolossat is an IBA and these birds are threatened. If we don’t do something soon, the lake will lose its IBA listing. We need government partnership if we are to save the lake,” said Ndung’u.
Amid the gloom and doom in Kenya and Uganda researchers in South Africa have however reported an increase in the number of cranes in the country.
This comes after the drastic decline by over 90 per cent reported between 1970 and 1990. South Africa has populations of Blue, Grey Crowned and the Wattled cranes.
The reasons behind the two-decade decline were the same as in East Africa — habitat loss and poisoning, and instances of power line collisions during migration.
The South African conservation body, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, partnered with the government, farmers, non-governmental organisations and the power utility company to reduce mortality of mature bird populations.
Like in Kenya and other countries, migratory birds are injured or die from collisions with power lines because the lines are not visible to them. South African power utility ESCOM now reroutes its lines during planning, or makes them visible for the birds through the use of marking devices; in two decades they have achieved positive results.
Twenty years later, the South African Blue Crane population is stable and the Wattled Crane population has increased from 235 in the early 1990s to over 310 to date.
The best success has been with the Grey Crowned Crane population, which has seen a a 46 per cent increase in the past 11 years.
Kenya is hoping to achieve the same rate of success.