Saving cranes in southern and East Africa

The EWT is conserving Africa’s cranes by reducing direct threats and protecting and restoring their grassland and wetland habitats.

What are Cranes?

Cranes are large and long-lived birds. They are elegant, and their trumpeting calls and carefree, bounding courtship dances are iconic and wonderful to watch. Some people see cranes as symbols of peace, happiness, and longevity because of their lifelong devotion to their mates. Unfortunately, cranes are often the first animals to disappear when an area is disturbed. This means that they are good indicators of the health of our environment, particularly grasslands and wetlands.

Why should we conserve cranes?

Cranes are ‘flagship’ species for conservation. Wetlands and grasslands are two of South Africa’s most threatened habitat types, destroyed by mining, development, and overuse. By conserving cranes, we conserve wetlands and grassland ecosystems that provide us and other species with essential goods and services. Cranes also have cultural significance. For example, the Blue Crane, South Africa’s National Bird, and the Grey Crowned Cranes have symbolic meaning for both the Zulu and Xhosa cultures. Furthermore, cranes are important for our economies as they attract tourists, particularly birders.

Sadly, crane populations have plummeted in the face of habitat change and loss. Without careful management, many crane species are doomed to extinction. Seven of the world’s 15 crane species are already Critically Endangered. And these declines are evident in all of Africa’s crane species.

Threats to cranes

All four of Africa’s crane species – Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Wattled Crane, and Black Crowned Crane – are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade, collisions with power lines, habitat loss and disturbance, and poisoning.

Africa’s threatened cranes

The Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) is South Africa’s National Bird, occurring mainly in South Africa, with a small population in Namibia. The Blue Crane is classified as Globally Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum), classified as  Globally Endangered, occurs in southern and East Africa. The Grey-crowned Crane is the only crane species affected by electrocution because it is the only one that perches and roosts in trees and on power lines. It is also vulnerable to the pet trade because of its magnificent golden crown. The Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) is classified as Vulnerable Globally and Critically Endangered in South Africa. The Black Crowned Crane (Balearica pavonine) is classified as Vulnerable.

How are we conserving cranes?

The Endangered Wildlife Trust started working on cranes in 1989 under the Highveld Crane Group. This group focused on education and raising awareness of the importance of cranes amongst landowners in the Eastern Highlands of South Africa. Between 1995 and 1999, we established crane conservation programmes in all ten key crane regions across South Africa. Later, in 2009, the EWT partnered with the International Crane Foundation (ICF) to launch the African Crane Conservation Programme (ACCP). This partnership kickstarted our work in East Africa with community-based projects in Uganda and Kenya and, later, in 2012, a project in Rwanda.

The EWT-ICF Partnership’s goal is to secure and improve the conservation status of Africa’s four resident crane species by reducing direct threats to them and protecting and restoring the wetland and grassland habitats they depend on.

We work with people

We work closely with local communities and key national and global stakeholders. With staff across southern and East Africa, we empower individuals, community groups, and organisations to manage catchments to benefit people and cranes. To this end, we facilitate training and job creation for people who are struggling to find work. The training builds capacity for activities that are sustainable and don’t harm cranes or their habitats. Examples of livelihoods we’ve helped create are employment through alien plant clearing projects, ecotourism ventures, and wildlife protection jobs. In all of our project areas, we help farmers to farm more sustainably using practices like permaculture. And we encourage the use of Sustainable Land Management principles. Many of the people we work with have since become crane custodians or are conserving wildlife through stewardship. We also implement Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) projects to improve the health of people and the environment.

We reduce threats

The EWT has a strong history of collaboration for conservation. Not only do we work with communities, other conservation organisations and government departments, but we also work with power utilities, such as Eskom, to mark power lines so that cranes see them and do not collide with them. 

Furthermore,  we raise awareness around the threats to cranes and their habitats among local decision-makers and policy developers. Importantly, we also monitor cranes and their key habitats in our project areas to understand the impacts of our efforts to conserve cranes are over time.

In South Africa, our programme works in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, and Mpumalanga. Across the rest of Africa, the programme oversees projects in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia and supports work in Ethiopia and Senegal.

The ACCP projects include:

  • Drakensberg Regional Project, South Africa
  • Highveld Regional Project, South Africa
  • Western Cape Project, South Africa
  • Liuwa Plains Project, Zambia
  • Kafue Flats Project, Zambia
  • Bangweulu Swamps Project, Zambia
  • South Western Uganda Project
  • South Central Uganda Project
  • Western Kenya Project
  • Rugezi Marsh Project
  • African Crane Trade Project
  • Research for Conservation Planning / Project Feasibility
  • AEWA Grey Crowned Crane Single Species Action Plan

Recent Stories of Success for cranes

Carbon credits for cranes

The EWT partnered with WeAct in January 2020 to initiate carbon projects in crane priority areas. These projects incentivise landowners to manage their grasslands and wetlands well to sequester carbon that they can sell as carbon credits. In August 2021, we signed South Africa’s first carbon project trading contract with a landowner in the Free State, followed in 2022 by the Drakensberg team signing agreements for 85,000 ha.

Read more about these projects here.

Counting cranes

The final counts in the 28th consecutive annual KwaZulu-Natal crane aerial survey in August 2020 included 1,466 Blue Cranes, 3,309 Grey Crowned Cranes, and 399 Wattled Cranes. We were excited to discover that the Wattled and Blue crane counts were the highest since the surveys began in 1992, while the Grey Crowned Cranes count was the second-highest. This showed that our activities to conserve cranes in these areas have been successful.

Read more here.

Recent crane count results from other areas:
  • The South Africa team completed its 1st ever Eastern Cape aerial survey in September 2021. During the survey, we counted 9,159 Blue Cranes, 934 Grey Crowned Cranes, and 14 Wattled Cranes.
  • Our first local crane count was conducted in Lwengo district, south central Uganda. and 1539 cranes were recorded.
  • The Kenyan team recorded >250 cranes in Homa Bay County.
  • The 2021/2022 breeding season monitoring by field staff at Rugezi Marsh in Rwanda shows that 11 breeding crane pairs bred and successfully raised 21 juveniles.

Positive policy for Rwanda’s cranes and people

We encouraged communities near Rwanda’s Rugezi Marsh to grow Napier Grass to feed their cattle instead of harvesting grass from the marsh, which disturbs breeding cranes. The communities have benefitted from better fodder, and the Grey Crowned Cranes breeding in the marsh have been much more successful than in previous seasons, fledging 21 chicks this year. Subsequently, Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture has made it mandatory for all rural households in the area to plant Napier Grass to feed their cattle and reduce erosion.

Read more about it here.

More protected habitat for cranes

The Upper Wilge Protected Environment (PE) in the Free State province of South Africa was formally declared as a protected area in January 2022. The PE secures 24,000 ha of pristine Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland – critical habitat for Grey Crowned Cranes, Wattled Cranes, and Sungazers, among others. To date, the ACCP has secured and improved the management of well over 200,000 hectares of important habitat for cranes and other wetland wildlife.

Read more here.

Clearing the flats in Zambia

Our work in Zambia focuses on the Kafue Flats, a critical breeding and foraging area for cranes, particularly the Wattled Crane and the endemic Kafue Lechwe antelope. This wetland is under increasing pressure from cattle grazing, mining and prospecting, growing human settlements, and unsustainable fishing. Another grave concern is the spread of the alien invasive plant Mimosa pigra that compromises the Flats’ ecology. To address this, the ACCP team employed local people to clear 2,305 ha of the plant. And Wattled and Grey Crowned cranes, as well as native vegetation and large herbivores like Oribi, Hippopotamus, and Kafue Lechwe, have started returning to cleared areas. We have also formed 20 Conservation Clubs, including 800 pupils and 82 teachers from 13 schools near the Flats, and we are training 65 community scouts to protect its wildlife flats and create jobs.

What can you do to help cranes?

  • If you find a crane chick injured or abandoned, here’s what to do
  • Use water wisely
  • Don’t pollute our wetlands with litter or chemicals
  • Don’t graze your cattle in wetlands