Monitoring of Wattled Cranes in South Africa over the past 30 years has started to show the fruit of its labor. Monitoring systems were implemented due to the extremely low numbers of the species which are primarily found outside of protected areas in wetlands on farmland. In the 1980’s a ringing program for the species was established and annual aerial surveys were conducted to enable breeding nest sites to be monitored. Stewardship schemes and raising awareness were also used as mechanisms to halt the decline of the species.
A steady increase in the population has been observed with the 2001 aerial survey’s sighting 183 individuals while 314 individuals sighted in 2017. The success of the project has to this point secured nest sites and counteracted negative effects on survival. Even with these proactive measures, survival of Wattled Cranes chicks to approximately 12 weeks is low (~39% in recent studies) with the major cause being predation. Survival of Wattled Cranes past 12 weeks in the Midlands area in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is 84%. The mitigation of negative anthropomorphic effects appears to be working relatively well for this species.
The Wattled Crane breeding individuals accounts for only approximately 40% of the population. The remaining individuals consist of non-breeding birds. These are birds that are sexually immature or single birds and commonly form ‘floater flocks’, as they are more nomadic then their breeding counter parts who remain on nesting territories throughout the year. This part of the population is the source of future breeding birds within the population and conservation of them is vital for securing long-term survival of the population. Consequently, understanding the movements of the floater flocks is important to ensure that single birds are recruited to become breeding birds. This has required fitting transmitters on some of these individuals to monitor their movements and habitat use. This information on the floater flock will better direct conservation efforts for this portion of the Wattled Crane population.
A collaboration between Endangered Wildlife Trust, KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation and the University of KwaZulu-Natal has secured funding for the Wattled Crane transmitters (six transmitters to be place on adults and six transmitters to be placed on chicks before they can fly). To date one transmitter that have been placed have been attached to an adult Wattled Crane, the first time this work has been carried out in South Africa. This work is not for the faint hearted as the shy and elusive species requires many hours of observations to enable their capture and transmitter fitment.
Initial results from this work shows Wattled Crane seasonal local migration from the Midlands, KZN, to the Cedarville area, KZN, in November and then returning to the Midlands in March/April. This migration takes just 2 days with an overnight stop. Five transmitters have been placed on wild chicks. Two transmitters were attached in 2016 and three fitted in 2017 and with three of the five birds having made the seasonal move between the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and the Southern Drakensberg region of Cedarville at least once. The information gained from these tracked birds will enable us to establish the important roosting and foraging sites for the species directing focused conservation efforts for the species.
Thanks are given to those that made this work possible; National Research Foundation, Openhiemier Memorial Trust, Kathleen Hastie Memorial Trust, Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust and the Hlatikulu Conservancy.
Article by Lara Jordan, PhD Candidate University of KwaZulu-Natal and supported by ICF/EWT Partnership