There are 4 subspecies of cranes in sub–Saharan Africa including the grey-crowned crane, wattled, blue and black cranes. The grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) in particular was put on the IUCN Red List of endangered species in 2012. This came after it was discovered that their population was reducing across its range in East Africa.
Particularly in southwest Uganda and Rwanda, the wetland habitats, the main breeding grounds for the cranes, were being degraded due to expansion of agriculture. The crane is a national bird of Uganda and a symbol of wealth and long-life among Banyarwanda. Their attachment to the bird alone is enough to conserve it, however. The conditions of economic life in the rural areas almost make it impossible given that they depend on nature.
The Ramsar Treaty, signed in Iran in 1971, marked the beginning of initiatives to safeguard wetland habitats from development around the world. A standard was set upon which to identify wetlands of international importance. Besides being a habitat for wildlife species, wetlands provide water, food, and materials that are harvested by women to make crafts such as baskets and mats.
Following instructions, Uganda joined the Ramsar Convention in 1988 and became the second country after Canada to legislate a wetland protection policy. Today, the country has 12 designated Ramsar sites including Rwenzori mountains, Lake Mburo-Nakivale, Mabamba bay, Lake Bisina, Lake George, Lake Nabugabo, Lake Opeta, Lake Nakuwa, Nabajjuzi, and Lutembe wetland systems. Rwanda also became a member in 2003 and has the Rugezi swamp on the Ramsar list.
In addition, she also has restored several urban wetlands into world class Ecotourism sites. In Kigali capital city, you can visit the Nyandungu Eco Park for birding, cycling, and nature walks. Those intending to enjoy bird watching, these sites offer opportunities to spot endangered species such as shoebill stork on our Uganda Rwanda safaris.
The species naturally lives and survives in both permanent and seasonal wetlands, which are the main breeding grounds with crabs, insects, and frogs. The grey crowned cranes also feed on grass and plant shoots in the open grasslands and cultivated farmlands. Oftentimes, the birds will destroy people’s crops and cause losses to farmers.
The extent of the damage is difficult to estimate depending on the population of birds at a given area. However, farmers must guard their crops, which is often associated with wildlife disturbance and crime. Scarecrows are one of the traditional and harmless ways that farmers set up to keep birds away from their gardens. Sometimes, children miss school given to do that. Protection of wetlands among the local communities is to some extent an issue in jeopardy.
In Rwanda, according to Olivier Nsengeimana who founded the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) in 2014, there were less than 500 cranes remaining in the “Land of A Thousand Hills.” The first thing he did was to identify the places where cranes were held in captivity or being captured for illegal trade across the country and then raise awareness to release them back into the wild.
According to Mangabay, Jimmy Muhebwa conducted a survey (2001 – 2003) in Kabale district, Kigezi highlands southwest Uganda. His findings indicate that there were over 10,000 cranes in the gorilla highlands but observed that their breeding cycle was being highly interrupted mainly by human activities including cultivation and settlements in wetlands.
When a follow-up research study was conducted in the same location 4 years later and it was discovered that the number of cranes had decreased by over 14% to less than 9,000 — the cranes and wetlands conservation project was created to reverse the trend. It is a program to engage local communities to understand the importance of wetlands and how best they can protect or restore those which were already degraded.
Land is privately owned and it is difficult for people to plant trees or vacate it without any alternatives to farming. However, they were willing to change if incentives were given to them. Therefore, the crane project shows how community based-conservation works for the benefit of both people, nature, and tourism in both countries.
Community conservation rewards in southwest Uganda
Given that people use wetlands every day for water and food, the cranes and wetlands project focused on meeting the needs of people first. The Population, Health, and Environment (PHE) approach was introduced in southwest Uganda. With an open mind, the conservationists lobbied for funds from the International Crane Foundation.
Several projects were started including training in sustainable agriculture practices and there’s huge transformation taking place in places like the Kawuku Kakindo wetland in Lwengo district on the shores of Lake Victoria and swamps around Lake Bunyonyi including Magudu-Buramba, Kiruruma river, and Nyamuriro.
Through local cooperative groups, farmers are empowered and this has helped in addressing the challenge of swamp draining through digging channels and both large- and small-scale mining for sand and clay has also been stopped. Disturbances to nests and breeding of cranes has also been minimized.
Annual workshops are conducted to ensure a farming system that solves food security and malnutrition among the respective local communities. The cranes and wetlands initiative actions have helped to save the cranes. Today, Uganda has the largest population of endangered grey crowned cranes in East Africa. The grey crowned cranes can be spotted in birding destinations including Lake Bunyonyi, Queen Elizabeth, Murchison falls, and Lake Mburo national parks.
Release of cranes in Akagera national park
When it comes to conservation of cranes, Rwanda strictly prohibits people from taming the birds. Government asked people to willingly submit birds in captivity for rehabilitation in 2014. So far over 150 birds have been released back into the wild in Akagera national park. The protected area offers excellent birding watching with over 500 species of birds including shoebill stork and papyrus gonolek. It is also the best place to spot the Big five 5 animals which include African bush elephants, lions, buffaloes, black rhinos, and leopards. Activities to do during your visit to Akagera include game drives, boat cruise, nature, and village walks.
Despite tremendous efforts, wetlands in the rural areas continue to face degradation due to rapid development. The East African region is home to around over 150 million people of which 40 million or (8%) live within the Lake Victoria basin according to African Great Lakes Information Platform (AGLI).
East Africa is the region of Africa that is experiencing rapid population and economic growth due to high fertility and birth rates, and increase in life expectancy. According to the United Nations Commission for Africa (UNECA), the increase in human population and development puts pressure on natural resources. Particularly in Rwanda, almost 75% of the 12 million people are farmers and Uganda has over 80% of the 45 million people depend on agriculture — the backbone of the economy for both countries.