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East African Communities Move to Protect Native Fowl

In East Africa, the number of crowned cranes has declined in the last 20 years, primarily because of the destruction of wetlands where they nest and breed. The problem is attributed to the reclamation of wetlands for agriculture and human settlement. Wetlands cover 80 percent of the land surrounding Lake Victoria in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

One group that’s trying to protect the birds is the East African Crowned Cranes Project. The group is an affiliate of the International Cranes Foundation based in the United States and is financed by the Royal Netherlands Embassy. As a private group, it closely works with some government sectors such as the Kenya Wildlife Services, National Environmental Management Authority, Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and the East African Wildlife Society.

The Cranes Project favors land preservation for the region’s indigenous wildlife. Its leaders says that 15 years ago, there were about 70 thousand cranes in the area; today, there are only about half as many.

Jimmy Muheebwa is an officer with Uganda Cranes Project. He was recently in Kisumu for a workshop to assess the problem. He says his group is working to determine how the birds are affected by the competition between the birds and farmers for the wetlands.

He said, "We want to establish how many cranes we have in a certain area and we keep monitoring upon that baseline. If we find there are, for example, twenty here, we will come back and count: Are they still twenty, are they reducing, or (on the other hand) what has made them grow from twenty to twenty five?"

Muheebwa says the presence of cranes indicates a healthy environment that includes plants, insects and snakes.

Local culture also holds them in high esteem. For example; some people in Uganda believe that cranes bring good luck when they visit your home; they are said to announce, for example, the arrival of a baby boy.

Also, the cry of cranes is said to alerts people about intruding wildlife. And, some tribal kings in the area and the Royal Netherlands Embassy use the birds as their totem emblem.

Muheebwa says some people think cranes share some of the same feelings as human beings:

"When you kill a crane," he said, "its sisters, brothers, grandmothers, mothers and relatives will come, of course, and sit by your home, cry all the night through, and by morning a member of your family will be found dead."

The East African Crowned Cranes Project aims to work to create greater awareness of the birds, and to gather local knowledge for a wetlands conservation plan. It is working with other groups such as Nature Uganda, Nature Kenya and Nature Tanzania.

The Ugandan office of the East African Crowned Cranes Project has started implementing a conservation plan, but on the Kenyan side, the project is at initial stages due to lack of a national policy for the wetlands. Local villagers claim the ownership of the wetlands for farming, grazing animals and traditional circumcision rites, making conservation of wetlands a controversial issue in Kenya.