Nairobi, May 24 – The Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum) is the world’s fastest declining crane. Found only in sub-Saharan Africa, the Grey Crowned Crane was once common in the wetlands of Democratic Republic of the Congo through to eastern Africa and stretching down to South Africa.

Today, Kenya is believed to hold the largest population of this crane species. But even here, the numbers have sharply declined from an estimated 35,000 cranes in 1987 to fewer than 10,000 cranes.

The National Museums of Kenya in partnership with Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), Germany’s oldest and largest environment association, and the International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership (South Africa), DT Dobie, David Fox and NABU Crane Centre, and over 40 volunteers organised and conducted the countrywide cranes census in Kenya between 25th February and 11th March 2019.

The findings

The report entitled ‘Results of the 2019 countrywide census of Grey Crowned Crane Balearica reguloram gibbericeps in Kenya’ reveals 7,776 Grey Crowned Cranes counted filling a three-decade gap since the last similar attempt was done by Wildife Clubs of Kenya in 1996.

Eight teams of national, regional and international experts and volunteers simultaneously searched and counted cranes in 28 of the 47 counties that covered all the known strongholds of the cranes.

“The findings of this report shows that Kenya’s population of Grey Crowned Crane is declining” said Wanyoike Wamiti, lead research scientist at the Zoology Department of the National Museums of Kenya. In 1987, the estimated  population of cranes was 35,000.

Of the 15 species of cranes surviving in the world today, the Grey Crowned Crane is decreasing the fastest.

“The status of this species in Kenya is therefore not good,” said Wamiti.

Habitat loss

The Grey Crowned Crane is a majestic bird – tall and enigmatic with its signature golden crest. It lays its eggs in wetlands, forages in grasslands and roosts on tall trees and in the marshes. But as wetlands are drained and burned and grasslands converted to agricultural landscapes, and forests that feed wetlands with water are denuded, the stately bird is losing its habitat.

The dilemma is exacerbated by poaching for the illegal and barbaric trade in live cranes on the international market for exotic pets and locally for bush meat. Other threats include electrocution and the increasing use of agrochemicals which if not used appropriately kills wildlife and birds.

Monitoring

The report recommends a survey once every five years to monitor the population changes and the impacts of conservation efforts, suitable for an endangered species that is in decline. In addition, an annual monitoring in the most important areas is highly recommended.

“We also need to have more tagged birds in Kenya to learn more about cross-border movements of this bird because we know very little to nothing about their movements across borders,” said Günter Nowald, CEO, Crane Conservation (Germany) and Director, NABU Crane Center.

At Lake Ol Bolossat during the survey, he fitted solar-panelled satellite transmitters on two fledglings, including country-code coloured rings for Kenya — a set of three that are blue-green-blue on the left leg. The right leg was fitted with another three rings that gives the bird an individual identity akin to a person’s name. When re-sighted and reported, it will help monitor cranes movements and habitat choice and use.

In the face of the threats to the stately birds, the research team is also calling for enforced bans on captive cranes and exports.

There is also concern over the use of harmful pesticides similar to the outlawed Furadan that has been the cause of deaths of vultures and lions in the recent past.

Success

One of the most successful local organisations in protecting the cranes is the Cranes Conservation Volunteers (CCV) at Lake Ol Bolossat in Nyandarua County. As a result of its outreach activities, men who once poached the cranes and their eggs are now the protectors.

“CCV can be a model for creating new site support groups in unprotected areas that have significant populations of Grey Crowned Cranes,” said David Fox of African Bird Club. “For populations of Grey Crowned Cranes in and outside of protected areas, suitable measures must be put in place to prevent the drying up of wetlands and to protect the cranes when foraging outside these areas,” adds David.

All these mitigation measures require the involvement of a number of different agencies such as Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Nature Kenya (NK and others in both government (national and counties) and the private sector.