Cranes, people and wetlands in Rwanda

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As I look at the Africa programme and where the priorities are for crane conservation on the continent, I do at times feel overwhelmed. Within Africa, we have four of the world’s most threatened crane species (Blue, Grey Crowned, Black Crowned and Wattled Cranes), each requiring significant effort to secure their future.

However, I believe strongly that the African Crane Conservation Programme (ACCP) team is developing powerfully and know that over the next few years, we will increase the number of projects and initiatives we have in Africa – one step at a time. – (Kerryn Morrison)Have you ever been lucky enough to see Blue Cranes flying overhead, calling in their guttural language? Or have you ever had the fortune to see a pair of Grey Crowned Cranes stalking regally through a wetland, their blue eyes alert and golden crowns like torches? Seeing a huge Wattled Crane with a chick is akin to seeing an endangered Rhino with a calf.

“These elegant birds, in their stature, grace, and beauty, their wild fierce temperament, are striking metaphors for the vanishing wilderness of our once bountiful earth,” writes author and naturalist, Peter Matthiessen in his book The Birds of Heaven. He notes also that cranes have a special purpose in nature, acting as indicator species for the health of wetlands, the air and the soil wherein they live. Protecting cranes actually “sustains the astonishing variety of forms in nature (with their habitats and ecosystems) known as biodiversity”.This article looks at the relationships between cranes and communities in Rwanda, Zambia and South Africa and how crane conservationists are successfully working with both.

Wetland Conservation in Africa
When he travelled the world to discover all 15 crane species, Matthiessen met up with Kerryn Morrison, head of the African Crane Conservation Programme (ACCP), under the International Crane Foundation / Endangered Wildlife Trust (ICF/EWT) Partnership. With her help, he discovered that Southern Africa is the only place on earth where the Grey Crowned Crane, the Blue Crane and the Wattled Crane occur together.

All cranes depend on wetlands for their survival. Osiman Mabehachi, Community Projects Coordinator for the ICF/EWT Partnership, notes that the mind-sets of many individuals and organisations have not shifted, despite the fact that drying of wetlands is one of the projected long-term impacts of climate change. This is “partly because conservationists have not succeeded in making wetland conservation an emotive issue that spurs people to act,” he says.

It is pertinent then that Grey Crowned Cranes, the iconic, charismatic flagships for Southern and East Africa’s grasslands and wetlands, have undergone a long-term large-scale population decline of up to 80% over the past 45 years.

Rwanda: Rugezi Marsh Hotspot
Mabehachi often journeys to Rwanda’s Rugezi Marsh, in the Northern Province of Rwanda, to monitor Grey Crowned Cranes resident there. This marsh is not only one of the biggest wetlands in Rwanda, covering an area of nearly, 7 000 ha, but it is also the most critical site for the Grey-Crowned Crane in the East African country.
This vital natural resource sustains the livelihoods of local communities and is also of national importance because the wetland water flows into the Bulera and Ruhondo Lakes. Hydro-electric schemes linked to these two reservoirs supply electricity, meeting more than a third of the country’s electricity demand. This tangible benefit can always justify the need for long-term conservation of the wetland.

The catchment of Rugezi, like most of Rwanda, however, is completely converted to subsistence agriculture and Eucalyptus plantations. Loss of top soil erodes down the steep slopes into Rugezi wetland. While the government has initiated a buffer zone of trees around the wetland to curb encroachment into the wetland by farmers, this does not mean that the wetland or the cranes are secure.

Zambia: Kafue Flats
Flying over the extensive and breath-taking Kafue Flats in Zambia for 29 intensive hours surveying Wattled Cranes is not for the faint-hearted. Last year, the ACCP discovered that this region is home to more than 2,300 Wattled Cranes, the largest population of such wetland birds in the world! Packed tightly into a tiny Cessna 208 for five days, the ACCP team recorded evidence of human involvement in the park – including settlements, cultivation, fishing camps, cattle posts, incidents of burning, logging, poaching, and charcoal production, plus counts of all livestock, especially cattle, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

After this first intensive survey in 10 years, Park Warden, Wilfred Moong was particularly keen to use these results actively on the ground. At least the ACCP now knows that the Kafue Flats is the most important wetland for Wattled Cranes, home to more than 25% of the estimate 8,000 Wattled Cranes in Africa.

South Africa: Chrissiesmere
The ACCP has found that crane projects that integrate conservation and community development have diverse socio-economic, institutional and environmental impacts. While the socio-economic and institutional impacts may become visible during the project period, the environmental outcomes may not be fully realised within short project timeframes.

“Our work in Chrissiesmeer has been primarily geared towards engaging local stakeholders so that they can appreciate the importance of conserving wetlands, grasslands and associated biodiversity,” says Mabhachi.
The project aimed to create platforms for collective action in solving environmental problems while promoting technical options for improving livelihoods. This included introducing integrated waste management systems to reduce pollution, improving environmental knowledge and changing environmental behaviours among rural and township communities.

“Our vegetable gardening interventions are already making the community realise that they can reduce food expenses if they adopt backyard gardening,” says Mabhachi. “We discovered that there are individuals who already possessed skills and if provided with the relevant support could impart new skills to other community members (e.g. individuals already trained in woodwork and tailoring).”

African Crane Partnerships
Progress is being made – so that cranes and people benefit in the long term. The robust 10-year partnership between the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) aims to save cranes from extinction. Today, reputable organisations, community champions, individual lobbyists, researchers and other supporters have grown to love cranes in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The world over, conservation is now about persuading people to adopt pro-environmental conservation attitudes and behaviour, lobbying for support from authorities and partners and promoting the spirit of stewardship by natural resource users. Coupled with this has been a gradual shift in conservation methodologies that has seen environmental organisations working towards integrating socio-economic development with biodiversity conservation. (Osiman Mabehachi)

This article was written by Janis Theron.

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