Mapping Threats to Grey Crowned Cranes in Eastern Uganda: Results of a Rapid Survey for Conservation Action

The African Crane Conservation Programme, a collaborative initiative between the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the International Crane Foundation (ICF), worked with Nature and Livelihoods (a Ugandan NGO) on a project aimed at assessing threats to Grey Crowned Cranes in the eastern region of Uganda. Data generated through the project provided an insight into the current distribution of Grey Crowned Cranes in the region. The project also undertook the first ever systematic assessment of the species’ roosting sites. A summary of the project activities, results and recommendations presented below is based on a report compiled by Dr. William Olupot, Executive Director of Nature and Livelihoods.

Introduction
Wetlands are a common feature in eastern Uganda. Based on GIS data generated by the Wetlands Management Department of the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment in 2008, the region is endowed with exceptional landscapes with probably a greater surface area of wetland (shaded as blue in the map) than those in the other four regions in the country. However, prior to this study, little was known about occurrence of cranes in the wetlands of this region. Previous studies have confirmed the occurrence of cranes mainly in the two rice schemes (Doho and Kibimba) and at other scattered sites in the region.

Project Area - Eastern Districts - Uganda

With support from the ICF/EWT Partnership and funding from the North Carolina Zoo, Nature and Livelihoods conducted a survey of Grey Crowned Cranes in 13 districts in the eastern region in May and June 2014. The goal of the survey was to map and prioritize by threat, locations for targeted conservation action and to shed some light on the distribution. Cranes were surveyed in two study areas in three wetland systems. Data were collected at 35 sites through interviewing people found at each site, direct observations, and interviews with district environmental and natural resource officers.

Results
The survey revealed that cranes occurred at all the wetlands surveyed, usually in small flocks averaging 6 (foraging) and 8 (roosting). Breeding was reported in all the wetlands, with 11 incidences observed in all sites within the last two years. Seven major threats were reported. Habitat loss to farming was the most visible and widespread of all threats; while others included collection of chicks for rearing within the rural areas, intentional and unintentional poisoning, continuous human presence in wetlands due to farming, long distance trade in crane products, and fire outbreaks in the wetlands during dry seasons.

Another potential but hitherto little known reported threat was loss of sites used by cranes for sheltering from the midday sun, a factor that may be crucial to crane conservation in warmer areas and during dry periods. Results from interviews suggested that such sites are typically located remotely from areas frequented by humans but because of extensive loss of wetlands in recent years, such sites are becoming rare. Other key observations related to threats were: i) that availability of roosting trees likely does not limit cranes here as such trees were observed to be common in the areas surveyed; rather it was the lack of security in those trees which was a roosting threat, and ii) crane-human conflict was negligible and therefore not a threat to cranes in this region.

Recommendations
1) Research – further studies to i) identify main concentrations of different flock types within the region and throughout the country, ii) understand impacts of each of the identified threats, and iii) understand implications of wetland farming on crane conservation, and its links to wetland degradation.

2) Conservation Action – i) improving crane security at sites used for breeding, foraging, roosting, and sheltering from the afternoon sun, ii) developing measures to minimize intentional or unintentional poisoning of, and hunting of cranes and other wetland species, iii) monitoring the status of threats and populations at different sites to ascertain containment of threats, iv) working with land owners to retain existing roosting trees on private lands and to ensure security of cranes on those trees, v) restoring cultivated river banks, vi) practicing sustainable agriculture in all wetlands used for farming, vii) rice schemes setting aside areas for breeding and roosting of cranes and other wetland birds, and securing nests placed in crop fields, viii) designating these wetlands as potential hotspots for wetland-based tourism, ix) integrating elements of crane conservation into all wetland management plans, x) enforcing existing wetland regulations, and xi) regulating and establishing good practices for capture of chicks in the wild and their rearing only in rural domestic settings.

This project was funded by North Carolina Zoo and Nature and Livelihoods, and was commissioned and supported by the ICF/EWT Partnership.

Contact details:
Dr. William Olupot, Email: wolupot@gmail.com or wolupot@natureandlivelihoods.org

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