Hope for iconic bird species amid decline

A pair of grey-crowned cranes nesting is a sight for sore eyes

In Summary

• As census shows stable but low numbers of cranes, a sighting in Nairobi inspires

A pair of grey-crowned cranes nesting
A pair of grey-crowned cranes nesting
Image: GN Muigai

Standing next to a wetland in Nairobi, Dr Wanyoike Wamiti was radiant. Through his binoculars among long reeds, he could see a pair of grey-crowned cranes nesting.

“It is great to see a breeding pair anywhere. This is a species whose population has fallen from 35,000 in 1985 to not more than 10,000 this year. That’s a loss of 25,000 cranes.”

The decline in the population of grey crowned cranes is very worrying as it tracks directly with the loss of the wetlands they depend on to rest, forage and breed in, Wamiti said.

Protecting wetlands from human settlement and other threats, he added, would not only benefit the cranes but also humans and other forms of biodiversity.

Wetlands are critical for people and the economy, holding and purifying water, checking floods and recharging the water table.

Over the last 40 years, the average depth of boreholes in Nairobi has gone from 80 to 400 metres, according to a Reuters report, and borehole water is becoming salty and often contaminated.

As the male and female cranes took turns sitting on the eggs, it was cheering for the crane expert, this being a new record for breeding pairs in Nairobi.

On May 21, he and ornithologists Dr Joseph Mwangi and George Ndung’u released the results of Kenya’s second countrywide census of grey crowned cranes. It had found just six of the cranes in Nairobi city county.

It was cheering as well because, in most parts of Kenya, cranes had had “poor to no breeding activities” during the three years of drought from which the country is only now emerging. Many wetlands across the country dried up, including Lake Ol’ Bolossat in Nyandarua county.

Conducted every five years, the census surveyed 819 sites across 34 counties, finding cranes in 427 of the sites. A total of 8,334 cranes, 8,314 in the wild and 20 in captive facilities, were recorded. Cranes were most often seen in wetlands (42 per cent) and crop fields (40 per cent) and grasslands. Eight flocks had more than 200 cranes, while 17 flocks had more than 100 cranes.

A press release from stakeholders said, “The Kenyan population is reliably estimated to lie between 8,500-10,000 individuals, showing that it is stable or slightly increased compared to the 2019 census that estimated it at 8,000 and 10,000.” 

The stakeholders are the National Museums of Kenya, International Crane Foundation, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Community Action for Nature Conservation and Cranes Conservation Volunteers.

More than 30 volunteers took part in the census. Three counties, Uasin Gishu, Nyandarua and Trans Nzoia, accounted for nearly half of the cranes. The main threats are “drought, conversion of native habitats to unfavourable uses, captive keeping, eggs collection and trapping of chicks and adults for illegal markets or local consumption”.

“Sometimes people kidnap small chicks, thinking that they can raise them. But no one has ever succeeded. In the wild, for the first three months, the grey crowned crane parents feed their young exclusively on aquatic invertebrates and small vertebrates like frogs,” Wamiti said. He said the depth of water is critical for the success of breeding pairs, protecting them from terrestrial predators like dogs and snakes.

Wamiti would like to see campaigns to increase pride in cranes, education of local leaders to conserve cranes and wetlands, carbon trading and payment for ecosystem services to finance community conservation of crane sites, and ways to reduce conflict between farmers and cranes to reduce crop damage.

He advises the public “to keep a distance from nesting cranes to avoid stressing them”.

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