18 Nov 2015

New Threats to Zambian Grey Crowned Crane Populations

Crowned Cranes and Elephants – Chichele Salt Pans ©Griffin Shanungu
By Griffin Shanungu Senior Wildlife Ecologist, ZAWA and Program Coordinator, Zambia Crane and Wetland Conservation Program, International Crane Foundation and Chaona Phiri, Research Officer BirdWatch Zambia

Globally, the long term survival of cranes is under serious threats because of destruction of their habitats, hunting, illegal trade and many others. Traditionally, threats to the crane populations in Zambia have been thought to be habitat loss due to water flow disturbances and subsequent spread of invasive shrubs – both alien and native - in the major wetlands where they live. As a result, most of our conservation efforts to safeguarding the future of the cranes have thus far concentrated on restoring these wetlands to natural water flow conditions most especially on the Kafue Flats Wetlands in central Zambia. However, new and emerging threats to the crane population have recently come to the fore and they need our urgent intervention.

The South Luangwa, one of the 4 national parks found in the Luangwa Valley – is arguably Zambia’s premier national park. Many mammal species are found here ranging from big cats, endemic large mammals and the ever present elephant! Hundreds of Grey Crowned Cranes are also found here; especially in and around the Chichele Salt Pans on the Nsefu Sector, and the ox-bow lakes and lagoons that characterize the park’s landscape.

Dead crested cranes  on the Luangwa River ©Mwamba Sichande

A flock of 43 cranes was found by patrolling Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Officers along the banks of the Luangwa River within the park, too weak to fly and looking sickly. After observing the birds for an hour, all 43 individuals died and there was nothing the officers could do to help the cranes. A postmortem was quickly conducted on 5 of the cranes by South Luangwa Conservation Society/Zambia Carnivore Program (SLCS/ZCP) veterinarian, to determine the possible cause of death. Maize grains were found in the stomach of the birds. This led us to believe that the birds could have been poisoned. But in order to ascertain this, samples were taken to the University of Zambia for further analysis. The analysis showed no positive signs of Avian Influenza or any other harmful pathogens thus further confirming that the birds here were poisoned. It is still not clearly known if this poisoning incidence was an isolated one and that the poisoning was un-intentional or that the cranes were specifically targeted. However, Efforts are still being made to determine the poison used in this instance.

A weak flightless  Crowned Crane on the Luangwa River ©Mwamba Sichande

Previously, we have always thought that the cranes in Zambia are mostly confined within protected areas and that they ventured very little into croplands and farming areas of surrounding communities. The maize grains in the stomachs of the 43 Grey Crowned Cranes now suggest that they do in fact, go into maize fields and possibly post-harvest areas to feed on maize grain. The deaths recorded here are significant and some efforts to alleviate further deaths are urgently needed. We need to find out more information about the Grey Crowned Crane and Local Community interactions and perceptions towards cranes and also what we can do to reduce or possibly alleviate the threats to the cranes. In addition, a lot of work is needed to determine population status, distribution and movement patterns of these cranes in the Luangwa Valley and elsewhere in the country.

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Perhaps the most significant threat to these cranes is the aspect of illegal trade. The beauty of the Crowned Cranes makes them sought after by private collectors, captive breeding facilities and zoos all over the world. The Grey Crowned Crane’s population has significantly reduced due to their capture and trade to satisfy this demand. Most often people collect eggs and young chicks and transport them over long distances to be traded, however many birds die along the way before they even make it to their intended final destination.

Up until early this year, there was no evidence suggesting that the Crane population in Zambia was being captured and traded. However, in the month of June, we learned about an individual intercepted at the Mpika road block mounted by ZAWA officers. The individual had with him Grey Crowned Crane eggs and heads of the cranes chopped off from their bodies. His intention was to export the eggs to Tanzania and to sell the chopped off heads of the Grey Crowned to local medicine men within Zambia and possibly Tanzania!

All the above issues indicate new threats to the crane population in Zambia that were previously unknown; Illegal Trade, and poisoning. We have heard of reports of such happening in or countries within the species range but not in our own country, as such, we urgently need to heighten our conservation efforts to prevent further deaths of these iconic birds.