Black Crowned Cranes Balearica pavonina are residents of the Sahel regions of Africa from Mauratania on the Atlantic coast in West Africa to the Western Ethiopian Highlands and Rift Valley in Ethiopia in the east. This crane is the least well known of the world’s 15 crane species. Although currently classified as Vulnerable, it is highly likely that this crane is in a far worse situation. Affected significantly by droughts in the semi-arid environments it is often found in, this species is also threatened by habitat loss, human related disturbance which results in reduced breeding productivity, and the illegal removal of chicks and adults from the wild for domestic and international captive trade markets. Sadly, its range too has reduced significantly from a once almost continuous distribution to a highly fragmented one.
Black Crowned Cranes in Casamance
Since the status survey and action plan for Black Crowned Cranes was compiled in 2003 under the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and Wetlands International collaboration, several projects have been undertaken in West Africa for the species. These have largely focused on broad scale distribution and status and the development of action plans across the region’s countries.
In October 2016, Richard Beilfuss (ICF CEO) and I visited Senegal for the 14th Pan African Ornithological Congress. We used this opportunity to then visit the two key Black Crowned Crane sites in Senegal with Idrissa Ndiaye, a bird researcher in the country. We first visited the Senegal River Delta in the Djoudj National Park in the north and then the Casamance region in the south. My ideas around both Senegal and Black Crowned Cranes were completely wrong on all accounts, and I am thrilled that we have made the move now towards strengthening our efforts for Black Crowned Cranes.
Senegal is a vibrant, peaceful, colourful country, with food that strongly draws on its French background. Unfortunately, the beaches and towns in Senegal are probably the most polluted I have ever experienced, but this is contrasted with far cleaner situations in the more rural locations.
I always had the idea that Black Crowned Cranes were very similar to Grey Crowned Cranes. However, this is definitely not the case. Idrissa has studied cranes for several years and has a wealth of knowledge on their behavior and nesting habits. Although both cranes perch in trees, almost everything else they do is different. The nests we saw were large mounds of vegetation either on islands or in large wetland systems where the nests were floating platforms surrounded by water. Interestingly, the parents seem also to hide young chicks on islands as they head off together to forage in neighbouring rice fields a distance away. I do not know of any crane species that will do this as a matter of habit. The cranes were all extremely wary of people and we battled to come within several 100 m of any birds – we really battled to understand the cause of this considering the fact that local communities supposedly do not hunt, eat, trade in or harm the species.
Idrissa at a nest on the Baila River in Casamance
Despite foraging in rice fields around these large floodplain and wetland systems, there appears to be very limited to no crop damage allegations. It probably helps that it is only adult pairs of cranes that forage in rice fields close to harvesting – at a time when they have left their chicks hidden whilst they forage. Flocks of cranes appear to only forage in rice fields following harvest in the dry season, and hence are then eating waste grain in these fields.
Rice field in Casamance
The communities we interacted with all held the cranes in high esteem. I had the fortune of meeting three community groups of the Jola people during our visit to Casamance. Of particular interest is the Diedhou people within the Jola group – the Black Crowned Crane is their totem and is extremely highly regarded. They have little understanding of the crane, but protect it vociferously. The cranes are deeply embedded in their culture and stories. They believe strongly that some of the women in the rice fields can understand and speak to the cranes, that cranes never damage rice crops of the Diedhou people and that a crane flying and calling over a village is announcing the death of someone.
The Diedhou local dress in Casamance (note the Black Crowned Cranes on the dresses)
Sadly, many of the Black Crowned Crane strongholds are now no longer easily accessed by researchers and conservationists due to political instability, warfare and the fact that they are centered within extremist group strongholds, such as those of Boko Haram. As a result, we are really only able now to focus attention on the species strongholds in Ethiopia and those along the West African coast extending from Mauratania to Guinea Bissau. With smaller populations in these areas, it is going to be critical that we use the opportunity now to better understand the breeding ecology of this species and to ensure that they are secured in these sites. Already assisting research in Ethiopia, the ICF / EWT Partnership will shortly start projects in Senegal and this West African region in collaboration with local NGOs and researchers.