Archived 2011-2012 topics: Grey Crowned-crane (Balearica regulorum): does it qualify as Endangered?

Initial deadline for comments: 31 January 2012 [note that this has been moved back by about two months].

BirdLife species factsheet for Grey Crowned-crane

Grey Crowned-crane Balearica regulorum is a widespread resident of eastern and southern Africa, inhabiting wetlands and associated habitats.  It is currently listed as Vulnerable under criteria A2c,d; A4c,d, because it is thought to have undergone a rapid population reduction over the past three generations (30-49% over 45 years). This decline is attributed to the conversion and degradation of wetlands for cultivation and livestock farming and the illegal removal of birds and eggs from the wild for food, traditional uses, domestication and illegal export (Beilfuss et al. 2007). A recently published study, involving a nationwide newspaper survey and visits to wetlands, found that the harassment and trapping of cranes (Balearica spp.) was common in Uganda during breeding (Olupot et al. 2009). Threats to cranes were reported at 25% of the 224 sites visited, with the commonest being nest destruction (56%), followed by trapping (16%), killing of cranes with stones or sticks (11%), removal of eggs (9%), and poisoning (4%), amongst other less frequent threats (Olupot et al. 2009).

When this species was uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable in the 2009 Red List update, there was some evidence to suggest that declines may have exceeded a rate of 50% during the past three generations or 45 years (Beilfuss et al. 2007), but data were regarded as patchy and an overall decline of 30-49% was considered a more reasonable estimate.

Recently collated data indicate that the species may have declined by more than 70% in Uganda since the early 1970s (National Biodiversity Data Bank in prep.) A similar decline is suspected to have taken place in Kenya, although there are no data to corroborate this (K. Morrison in litt. 2011). Existing estimates suggest that a decline of c.30-40% occurred in Kenya between 1994 and 2004 (Beilfuss et al. 2007). These data are particularly important given that Uganda and Kenya are thought to hold c.66-70% of the species’s entire population (Beilfuss et al. 2007). Provisional data from the Tanzania Bird Atlas project indicate that, when some control is applied for variation in recording effort, the species has declined at least since the 1980s (Morrison et al. 2007).

Overall estimates suggest that the species’s global population has declined from over 100,000 individuals in 1985 to 50,000-64,000 individuals in 2004 (Beilfuss et al. 2007). This implies that the species may have declined by over 50% in 19 years, and when these data are extrapolated to a period of 45 years in the past (1967-2012) or past and future (1985-2030), assuming an exponential trend, the calculated rate of decline is c.65-80%. Such a rate of decline would qualify the species for uplisting to Endangered under criteria A2a,c,d; A4a,c,d, on the basis that a decline of 50-79% is estimated and projected to occur over 45 years, assuming that the relevant threatening events have been prevalent at least since the late 1960s and that there is no future improvement on existing conservation efforts.

Comments are invited on this potential category change and additional information is requested, especially for parts of the species’s range for which more reliable data have previously been lacking.


Beilfuss, R., Dodman, T. and Urban, E. K. (2007) The status of cranes in Africa in 2005. Ostrich 78: 175-184.

Morrison, K.,   Beall, F., Friedmann, Y., Gichuki, C., Gichuki, N., Jordan, M., Kaita, M., Ndang’ang’a, P. and Muheebwa, J. (Eds) (2007) African Crane Trade Project: Trade Mitigation Planning Workshop. Workshop Report. Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (SSC/IUCN)/CBSG Southern Africa. International Crane Foundation/Endangered Wildlife Trust Partnership, Johannesburg.

Olupot, W., Mugabe, H. and Plumptre, A. J. (2009) Species conservation on human-dominated landscapes: the case of crowned crane breeding and distribution outside protected areas in Uganda. Afr. J. Ecol. 48: 119-125.

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8 Responses to Archived 2011-2012 topics: Grey Crowned-crane (Balearica regulorum): does it qualify as Endangered?

  1. I think they do deserve to be updated to the level of endangered. Information from many areas of their range suggest declines that may be pushing populations to unsustainable numbers.

    In countries like Uganda where populations occur mainly outside legislated protected areas, the problem is worsening. Human population pressure and intensification of land use is leading to a high rate of habitat loss (so loss of foraging, nesting, and roosting sites). Because human population increase means that cranes are increasingly living in closer proximity of humans, they are experiencing a greater rate of harrassment and are more predisposed to hunting.

    Perhaps now more than ever, cranes are experiencing a high rate of nest loss due to human harrassment and greater interaction with their pets and livestock. These pressures may be reducing breeding success to a point that may not sustain high numbers and is probably taking a toll on adult birds.

  2. Joe Taylor says:

    The following comments were sent by Ann Scott on 23 November 2011:

    Given the overall decline of the species, and also a recent decline in numbers of Blue Cranes in the Etosha NP and habitats to the north (which are also used by Grey Crowned-crane) due in part to suspected illegal harvesting/hunting, it is possible that the Grey Crowned-crane population in Namibia [<50 individuals; A. Scott in litt. 2011] may also be in decline. However, we do not have sufficient count data to substantiate this.

  3. Grey Crowned Cranes were considered common and in no way threatened less than 3 – 4 decades ago. This situation though has changed dramatically, and Joe Taylor’s summary of the situation, and Ann Scott’s and William Olupot’s comments support this. I fully support the uplisting to Endangered.

    Primarily occuring outside of protected areas, their close association with agriculture, and their charismatic character and beauty, has resulted in the key threats the Grey Crowned Crane is faced with. Increasing human pressures on wetlands for agriculture and livestock grazing has resulted in increased fragmentation and degradation of suitable wetland areas for nesting, and has also resulted in increased disturbance around nesting sites, both resulting in reduced breeding productivity or lost nesting sites. This is particularly evident in Uganda as William Olupot notes, and is very likely a strong case for Kenya and several other range states as well – although no supporting evidence is currently available. General observation in Kenya though support this. In addition, and in South Africa in particular, it is the escalation of mining (coal mining), that is threatening much of the grassland /wetland habitat where Grey Crowned Cranes are found – ultimately destroyng suitable nesting habitat. These ecosystem threats unfortunately are ongoing that will likely increase significantly over time.

    Poisoning as a result of crop damage and in instances for food as well, is an issue in some countries, and in particular in Kenya. Research conducted by the ICF/EWT Partnership and the University of Nairobi found that large numbers of Grey Crowned Cranes were killed annually by poisoning in Kenya. From anecdotal information received, Grey Crowned Cranes come into serious conflict with farmers around crop damage in several countries, and it is likely that poisoning is a factor in instances. Unfortunately this is an ongoing threat as mitigation measures on subsistance farms still need to be found and then implemented to reduce this conflict.

    Illegal wild caught trade is the third key threat to Grey Crowned Cranes. Preliminary studies coordinated by the ICF/EWT Partnership in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa, and more recent information obtained from Zimbabwe and Rwanda (and in these comments, from Namibia too) highlight that the illegal captive trade is significant. The demand is either domestic (South Africa and Rwanda) or from the Middle / Far East, and specifically relates to the pet trade, captive facilities and informal zoos. Although efforts are underway to address this threat, it is a global problem that will require long term efforts.

    The final key threat to the species is one that will significantly increase over the years ahead across their range- electrocution and collisions with overhead power lines. Already it is a key threats to the Grey Crowned Crane in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Uganda. As countries in Africa increase their power supply to regions, so too will the network of overhead power lines. This will no doubt become an escalating threat over the years ahead.

    These four primary threat categories have resulted in the decline that has already been witnessed in Grey Crowned Cranes, and unfortunately, show no signs of reducing significantly at this time. With the more recent information available on the trends, and with the current key threats showing no signs of abating at this time and are in fact rather increasing, I support the uplisting to Endangered.

  4. I also agree with the up-listing to Endangered. Because this species lives for many years we believe that the numbers we see in Uganda may be likely to decline rapidly over time because many may not be breeding at present. I have seen this occur in Rwanda since the late 1980s when cranes were relatively abundant there in the valley bottoms. However because of little wetland available for nesting, the population has probably declined to a very low number – they are hardly ever seen now in the valley bottoms in the country when you drive around and I have only see them in Akagera Park recently. There are no data to support this but it seems a likely scenario and could well occur in Uganda also.

  5. I agree that the Grey Crowned Crane must be up-listed to Endangered. From a purely enforcement point of view, too little is currently done to prevent the destruction of nests, mining activities and illegal trade activities. However, we have noticed that with State Prosecutors and Magistrates there seems to be a higher sense of care and therefore higher penalties when dealing with a species that is listed as Endangered. I am not promoting this as a sole reason for up-lifting the cranes, merely as an illustration of how non-conservationists see and react to wildlife issues.

  6. As noted by other contributors, due to the absence of monitoring systems in many of the Grey Crowned Crane range countries, we have to use the available anecdotal information to make decisions and recommendations. Having interacted community members and conservationists involved in crane conservation in the Grey Crowned Crane’ strongholds (Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa), I have been able to collect information on the issues affecting the species. Based on this information and my personal observations, I support the proposal to uplist the species from Vulnerable to Endangered.

    I agree with Olupot’s points on the threats to the species in Uganda, especially regarding loss of breeding habitats. I have had the opportunity to visit key crane sites in Kabale, Bushenyi and Lwengo Districts. It is true that the high population growth in Uganda over the past 30 years has led to high demand for arable land, much to the detriment of the ecological health of wetlands. Though there is no data on actual location of crane sites in the 70s and 80s in Kabale, it is evident that there are huge expanses of landscapes that used to be permanent wetlands but were drained so that fodder grasses and crops could grow all year round. Nest sites that have been located in recent years are found on sections of similar valley bottom wetlands that have not been excessively drained. It is therefore highly probable that the impact of the loss of habitats through drainage (on breeding success and population overall) is only are becoming evident now as the generation of pairs that over the years has not been able to breed die out.

    In Zimbabwe, my conversations with birdwatchers and records of sightings in birdwatchers’ newsletters confirmed that the Grey Crowned Crane used to occur (sparsely though) in the Mashonaland Plateau up until the 1980s but save for rare sightings of pairs on the outskirts of Harare, there has not been any recent reports from other areas. In the Driefontein Grasslands, considered to be one of the strongholds of the species in the country, habitat loss is a cause for concern and mortalities due to powerline collisions have been reported. Habitat loss, a direct result of the introduction of subsistence agriculture following the land reform programme implemented in 2000, has escalated as new agricultural plots were established. Grey Crowned Cranes nest on the edges of man-made dams (built by commercial farmers in the 1960s) but due to lack of proper maintenance and in some cases overgrazing, the breeding habitat is disappearing. In 2011, there were four confirmed cases of Grey Crowned Cranes that died after colliding with an 11 KV powerline. It is likely that there were other incidents that went undetected and probably other cases that occurred in previous years. Though not much is known about the status of the population of the species in Matabeleland, changes in land use and settlement patterns due to the land reform exercise might have led to habitat loss and possibly increased human-crane conflict.

    Every year since 2009, I have visited north-western districts of Kenya, one of the few areas in the country where crane surveys have been undertaken. Maurice Wanjala, a conservationist who has been involved in crane and wetland conservation awareness since the 1990s, has noted that four wetland sites that used to support breeding pairs in 2002 have since been converted into eucalyptus plantations in Kakamega and Trans-Nzoia Districts. Since growing eucalyptus is not labour-intensive and due to the ready market for eucalyptus poles in Kenya, the problem of loss of habitat due extensive plantations is set to escalate. A comparison of results of a survey carried out in 2011 with figures from 1993 revealed that the number of breeding pairs at Saiwa Swamp had declined from 30 to 15. The decline has been attributed to encroachment into wetland by farmers.

    On a more general note, I agree with Olupot that cranes are increasingly being forced to be close to humans due to encroachment into wetlands by subsistence farmers and the likelihood that this is impacting negatively on breeding success. They are also becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack and other forms of persecution in agricultural fields as farmers strive to maximise yields by minimising losses due to pests, especially in highly populated areas in East Africa.

    Despite the absence of reliable scientific data emanating from lack of funding to undertake comprehensive surveys, it is known that except for South Africa, the population of the Grey Crowned Crane has declined drastically in recent years in most range countries. In view of the accounts given by community members and conservationists pointing to the escalation of threats to the Grey Crowned Crane, I support the idea of uplisting the status of the Grey Crowned Crane from Vulnerable to Endangered.

  7. James Harris says:

    We have been following with great concern the decline of the Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, and supported its listing as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Further information, however, indicates a more severe decline than previously documented, at greater than 50% over three generations (45 years). This information has been submitted by Kerryn Morrison.

    We believe the Grey Crowned Crane should now be uplisted to Endangered. The primary threats include habitat loss, trade, poisoning, collisions with overhead power lines and electrocutions on electric infrastructure. As most Grey Crowned Cranes occur at scattered locations outside protected areas, these threats are difficult to control and expected to continue into the future.

    Both Black Balearica pavonina and Grey Crowned Cranes were included in the CITES Significant Trade Review process in 2009 due to a concern over the extent of their international trade. Trade in wild caught individuals, primarily for the international captive trade and private facility market, is a key threat to both species. According to the information collected through our African Crane Trade Project, trade is particularly significant from Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda for Grey Crowned Cranes. Although much of this trade is illegal, a portion of the individuals traded are recorded at border points and hence the countries have a record of this trade. A great part of this trade though is not included in the CITES database and no CITES export permits are issued – a requirement for a CITES Appendix II species.

    In July 2011, the CITES Animal Committee determined that both species of Crowned Cranes would continue with a full review process. Four countries only were dropped from the full review process, for Grey Crowned Crane, based on submission of reports indicating how non-detrimental findings were determined. These countries – Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa – have a small proportion of the Grey Crowned Crane population.

  8. Mike Jordan says:

    I would support the uplisting to Endangered.

    The recent declines in the East African populations are very disturbing and there appears to be very few controls in place to reduce these threats. Recent information I have on the scale of the trade out of East Africa into the middle-east and China still appears to show large numbers of wild caught sub-adult and adult birds entering into trade.

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