When growing up in Bushenyi District about 55 years ago, I used to be woken up in the middle of the night by the beautiful music of the Crested Crane commonly known in the area as Entuuha. They would do it twice in the night the first round at around 1:00 and the second time meant the day was about to break.
In my early life we the children from the area would always be told to go to millet gardens to chase the birds especially the cranes which were always causing havoc. They would be in a swam of about 20 to 30 birds. However we were always fascinated by their dance once it came to around 3:00pm because they would start their dance for almost 20 minutes.
No wonder it was chosen as a nation symbol for the country Uganda and some of the tribes in the area like Banyarwanda and Bakiga have similar dances.
They would also nest in the nearby wetlands which were very difficult to penetrate because of the thickness of bushes and the water underneath. We would want to chase them up to their nests but feared to drown.
However all this has changed, the night calls are no longer there and the wetlands have disappeared. The cranes are no longer many in the village. One may spend a year without seeing a single bird.
The Greater Mbarara Environmental expert Jeckonious Musingwire says the low numbers of the graceful bird in this area is because of the population pressure on land that has led to degradation and reclamation of the wetlands for agriculture and farms for animals. “The crested crane is a wetland bird and the wetlands have been degraded, what would you expect,” he says
According to the Nature Uganda and Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, considerable decline of the crane has been recorded in the East African Sub species. The population of the Grey Crowned Crane bird species has drastically reduced over the last four decades in Uganda. In 1962, the Grey Crowned Crested Cranes in Uganda were estimated at around 100,000, but has dropped and now ranges between 10,000 to 20,000.
“These species have reduced from 35,000 to a range of 20,000-25,000 in Kenya in the three decades while about 1,000 crested cranes are thriving in each of the remaining East African nations of Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania. As a result of this trend, the International Union of Conservationists of Nature (IUCN) was prompted to include Grey Crowned Cranes on the endangered species list in 2012,” says Paul Mafabi, Assistant commissioner in charge of wetlands ministry of Water and Environment of Uganda
Their survival is affected mainly by habitat destruction, due to drainage system, human activities, which include over overgrazing, using pesticides that pollute the water and vegetation they feed on.
Mr Musingwire says the crested crane breeds in parts of wetlands which have less human activities. “The crane nests in wetlands which are quiet and very protective of their young ones. However in Southwestern Uganda the bird faces extinction because about 50% of the wetlands have been degraded,” he says
Another contributing factor is that the food it eats like insects, fruits and vegetables have been depleted because of wetland reclamation into farmland and the natural nature of the bird. He says the crested crane is highly monogamous. “A male does not share other females, it pares in a lifetime. Once it loses its partner it does not mate again and chances of getting another partner is very slim. It also do not breed in captivity. With all this the crane bird needs protection lest its extinction would be unavoidable,” he says.
Most crane species live in wetland habitats, on river banks, around dams and open grasslands. They feed on grass, seeds, frogs, insects, small toads along with other invertebrates.
The species have unique nesting patterns as they usually return to the same spot annually and thus any destruction to such places would impact their breeding patterns.
As mitigation measures Musingwire says restoration of wetlands is paramount. “The government of Uganda has passed an ordinance of restoration of degraded wetlands and encroachers are being evicted and the exercise is ongoing. Those with land titles have been cancelled”, he says. However it is still an uphill task that is yet to be achieved