Hlatikulu Crane Centre
The Hlatikulu Crane & Wetland Sanctuary is a rescue, rehabilitation, and captive breeding facility for all three of South Africa’s crane species. There are 15 crane species from around the world and all of them are endangered or under threat to some degree. The main reason for this is that cranes are intimately linked to the grassland biome – often limited to wetlands – and this biome is the most threatened by agriculture and other human activities. We often hear about the destruction of the rainforests but grasslands have been decimated by agricultural activities since our species first developed farming 10 000 years ago.
The Blue Crane:
The Blue Crane (actually greyish in colour) is South Africa’s national bird. Its scientific name is Anthropoides paradisea, which can be translated as human-like bird of paradise.
The Blue Crane is listed as Endangered in the South African Red Data Book. (A Red Data Book lists the relative abundance and conservation status of species. From common to rare to vulnerable to endangered to critically endangered to extinct to extinct in the wild.) The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Data book lists the species as Critically Endangered because apart from a very small population in Etosha, the Blue Crane is found only within the political borders of South Africa (ie Endemic to SA).
In some parts of its range, namely the eastern part of the country, the Blue Crane has suffered a 90% population drop. This is almost entirely caused by the wholesale modification of grasslands in the high rainfall areas of the country for the growing of food and timber crops, as well as dams, housing estates and tourism developments.
Fortunately for the species, the population in the Western Cape is stable. The Western Cape wheat growing region is a winter-rainfall area. Crops are planted around April, allowed to grow through the wet winter and are harvested in early summer – leaving tens of thousands of hectares of short grassland with lots of food – just when Blue Cranes nest. It is quite concerning that the only stable population of this species is found on a human-modified landscape. If too many of the Cape wheat farmers put in a summer crop, or if they change from wheat to rapeseed for example, the species could disappear almost overnight.
Blue Cranes pair off at about 4 – 5 years of age and can be found in huge flocks when not breeding. During the breeding season they attempt to establish and defend a territory where they will lay up to 4 well-camouflaged eggs in a rough scrape-nest. Mostly the female will lay 2 – 3 eggs and 1 – 2 chicks will be fledged. Both sexes incubate and both parents help to raise the chicks, normally keeping the chicks separate to prevent fighting.
The long feathers are not tail retrices as they appear but are in fact inner wing tertial feathers. They are used extensively for various communication displays. All cranes use elaborate spinning, twirling and jumping “dances” for courtship and territorial displays. The wing feathers of the Blue Crane were sought after by the Zulu kings as part of the royal headdress.
At this stage there is no coordinated captive breeding programme for Blue Cranes. However, the skills and capacity exist should this become necessary as Blue Cranes are relatively easy to breed in captivity. Any birds that are injured, poisoned or confiscated by the Authorities are brought here for rehabilitation and release. Birds are released onto the Sanctuary or nearby when there are wild or other released birds in the area.
There is a nationwide monitoring programme on Blue Cranes to keep tabs on their numbers.