Understanding Blue Crane movements and landscape use for conservation planning in the Western Cape

The Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus is South Africa’s national bird and is a near-endemic to South Africa, with 99% of the world’s population occurring in South Africa. Historically, the Blue Crane population was estimated to be in excess of 100 000, but today it is estimated at between 25 000 and 30 000 individuals. Over the last two decades, the population has been stable overall but the population’s stability is undermined by threats that include habitat loss through human alteration of the landscape (e.g. through mining), destructive human activities (poisoning and illegal trade) and, potentially, landscape transformations and land utilisation changes driven by climate change.

Groen filmcrew_Fordoun chick release_Tanya Smith article

Blue Crane numbers and distribution patterns within South Africa have changed over the years. Most notably, the agricultural activities and the resultant landscape mosaic of agricultural patches in the Overberg and Swartland Region of the Western Cape have benefited Blue Cranes. The area has become a stronghold for the species in South Africa, with approximately 60 % of the country’s population found in the region. The species has adapted well to the use of the pastures and wheat fields of the Western Cape for breeding and foraging. Looking forward, changes to the socio-economic environment and climate in the area could alter farming practices to the detriment of the cranes. A significant increase in the number of wind farms and other similar developments in the Western Cape pose a major threat to the country’s key Blue Crane populations.

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Thanks to the Table Mountain Fund, we have commenced a research project aimed at understanding the movement and landscape utilisation patterns of Blue Cranes in the Overberg and Swartland region of the Western Cape. We will achieve this by placing satellite trackers onto 15 adult Blue Cranes within the region and supplementing the tracking data with field observations describing roosting, foraging and breeding habitat and utilization. Secondly, we aim to gain an understanding of farmers’ perceptions and their understanding and tolerances of an increasing Blue Crane population within the agricultural landscape. We will achieve this through questionnaire-based surveys involving farmers in the Overberg and Swartland. This will assist us to determine if there is a potential threat of conflict between farmers and cranes due to crop damage, disease transmission or feed competition with livestock, perceived or real, and if so what level of threat exists and where. The results of research to address the two objectives will guide applied conservation action for South Africa’s National Bird.
Glenn Ramke, widely regarded as the crane guru in recognition to her 20-year involvement in crane conservation in the Wakkerstroom area, has moved down to the Overberg region of the Western Cape to help us implement this project in partnership with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology University of the Cape Town, the Overberg Crane Group and CapeNature.

I look forward to reporting on the progress of this research project over the next year.
Tanya Smith
Regional Programme Manager
International Crane Foundation / Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership, Email: tanyas@ewt.org.za

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