Project to rescue rare Wattled Cranes (Grus caranculatus)
08 Feb 2010
Witness - 6 February 2010
Julia Denny-Dimitriou

The K Z N Midlands is to host part of a unique conservation project that is helping to bring a rare crane species back from the edge of extinction.
A programme to raise critically endangered Wattled Cranes was launched in Nottingham Road yesterday.

Jeanne Marie Pittman, project co-ordinator of the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme, launched its reintroduction project at the 450-hectar­e Bill Barnes Crane and Oribi Nature Reserve, in the Usher Conservation Centre. The project includes an isolation-rearing facility and roosting pens to raise Wattled Crane chicks.

There are only 250 Wattled Cranes (Grus caranculatus) left in South Africa, most of them in KwaZulu-Natal. Their numbers have decreased because of degradation and loss of wetlands (their natural habitat) accidental poisoning and collisions with power lines. They also have the lowest reproduction rate of the 15 crane species worldwide, producing only one chick per season, explained Pittman, a world authority on cranes.

“Their numbers have stabilised because of strategies to mitigate the threats to them, but we need to do more. Adult pairs raise only one chick, even if they produce two eggs. Consequently, the recovery programme, which is based at Johannesburg Zoo, got permission to collect abandoned eggs and hatch and raise them in captivity. We have learned a lot since we started, and are now confident that we can successfully hatch and raise young cranes for release into the wild,” Pittman said.

She and her team have been based at the KZN Crane Foundation facilities in the nature reserve for two weeks, trying out the area as a potential rearing site. They brought with them a five-and-half-month-old Wattled Crane called Andrea, which lives in captivity at the Johannesburg Zoo.

“It has been an exciting time for her as it was the first time she saw a wetland, but she knew immediately what a crab was and what to do with it. She also star­ted to fly for the first time while here,” said Pittman.

Andrea is being raised by a surrogate crane mother, Johannesburg Zoo animal attendant Thoko Masina. She wears a Wattle Crane costume and has used a crane puppet since Andrea hatched to make sure that “she thinks she is a crane, and not a human”.

“Chicks become imprinted on whatever they see in the first three to five days of their lives. We want her to be wary of humans so we can safely release her into the wild … ,” Pittman said.

There is a resident pair of breeding Wattled Cranes at the nature reserve, “so we know this is an ideal wetland site to rear birds for release. We have been exposing Andrea to these birds to test whether they will tolerate cranes being raised in the area, as they are very territorial. We are pleased with the progress so far”.

The recovery programme plans to raise funds to build isolation-rearing facilities and roosting pens on the reserve. Facilities isolated from humans are needed to ensure the birds can be released into the wild successfully. Water-based roosting pens are needed to teach them how to roost in water, which is their natural form of protection from predators.

“We want to have facilities ready to start hatching and raising chicks in May 2011. Our proposed budget is R2,8 million to build and staff the planned buildings. We would welcome donations from interested people,” Pittman said.

During the team’s stay, Andrea has been housed in a specially built, secure pen to protect her from pre­dators. To ensure the safety of her precious charge, Pittman has been sleeping in a tent beside the pen.

Commenting on why she dedicates her life to saving Wattled Cranes, Pittman said: “Because their natural habitat is wetlands. If we save this crane, we save wetlands, which are also critical to our survi­val. The two are bound up together.”

Contact the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme at 011 646 2000; Jeanne Marie Pittman at 072 874 9711; www.wattledcrane.co.za