Searching for cranes in urban wetlands around Kampala, Uganda

Most of our crane monitoring takes place in rural areas, farming landscapes and protected areas. In Uganda, plans are underway to determine the status and distribution of cranes in wetlands around Kampala, the country’s capital city. Searching for cranes in wetlands located in urban landscapes is a different ball game. Not only are the cranes difficult to spot due to constant human presence and movements, built urban infrastructure inhibits the execution of transects and point counts. During the second week of May, Jimmy (Uganda Project Coordinator) and I had a feel of what it takes to traverse urban landscapes, survey wetlands, and spot and count cranes.



Cranes preening themselves on a cleared wetland plot near residential areas

In the early morning hours, around mid-day and later in the afternoon, Kampala becomes a congested city due to thousands of cars and motorbikes on roads that were initially designed for lower traffic volumes decades ago. This makes moving from one section of the city to the next a nightmare. We endured the traffic jams and unexpected obstructions due to road constructions as we searched for the cranes in wetlands that are increasingly being fragmented, drained and transformed into industrial and residential areas. Due to a poor waste management system, some of the wetlands are highly polluted and unsightly. Jimmy once carried out surveys in Kampala as part of his MSc research in the early 2000s. He lamented the rate at which Kampala had grown since the 1990s and the negative impact of the expansion on wetlands that previously supported crane populations. Some of the access routes (previously open spaces and paths) to known crane sites were impassable due to construction of new buildings in recent years. We drove to dumping sites (where cranes have been seen foraging in recent years) and all we saw were large flocks of Marabou Storks competing for space with residents collecting plastics for recycling. We expected to see cranes on farms and wetlands on the outskirts of the city but this was not to be.




Marabou Storks at one of the rubbish dumps where cranes have been seen foraging in recent years




Threats to cranes: Soil excavation, powerlines, road construction and eucalyptus in wetlands

Just when we thought our search was going to be fruitless, we were thrilled when we saw one pair of cranes on a piece of land next to a wastewater treatment plant. A few minutes later, we observed two pairs foraging on a section of riverine wetland that separates Busenga and Bulenga suburbs. The pairs seemed to have adapted well to the constant presence of noisy groups of traders, motorists, construction workers, plant harvesters and pedestrians. We also noted that despite the extensive transformation and fragmentation of wetlands, there were patches (waterlogged, grass-covered and inaccessible to humans) that could still be used by cranes for breeding. Jimmy informed me that one pair successfully bred on a small island in the middle of a wide drainage channel near the wastewater treatment plant last year. Though we did not see as many cranes as we expected, driving around Kampala helped us get an idea of some of the challenges, opportunities and key logistical issues we have to consider when developing a methodology for a comprehensive survey scheduled for next month. Results of the survey will provide insight into the status and distribution of crane populations around Kampala.


Article by Osiman Mabhachi

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