As wetlands disappear in South Africa, so do wattled cranes. Can an innovative programme help protect the species? Wild visited Johannesburg Zoo to learn more about the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme (WCRP). By Arnold Ras

They are majestic and elegant, individual and beautiful, but with only a few hundred wattled cranes left in the wild in South Africa, they are now one of our country’s critically endangered birds.

“There are currently about 300 individuals, maybe a little more, left in the wild in SA,” explains Elaine Bratt, avian keeper at Johannesburg Zoo. “Their natural habitat is wetlands, like in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where the main population is found, but these are being destroyed.”

What’s more, the birds have a low reproductive rate. Although female wattled cranes may lay two eggs at a time, only one chick will be reared by the parents – taking care of both chicks simply requires too much energy. In the wild, the second egg is abandoned, but conservationists cannot afford to lose that second chick. With wattled cranes as endangered as they are, ‘second-egg chicks’ have become more precious than ever.

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Gold: a wattled crane’s eggs. Pictures by JP de Vos

That’s where the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme comes in. An initiative of the Johannesburg Zoo and other partners, the programme seeks to collect and raise second eggs. Nests are identified thanks to aerial surveys by the Bateleurs and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, then fieldworkers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust monitor the nests during the breeding season. Second eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator before the chicks are flown to Johannesburg.

According to Elaine, the most stressful part is transporting the chicks from KZN to the zoo. Fortunately, the travel time is kept to a minimum thanks to sponsored flights. Airlink, the official transport sponsor, is privileged to be involved in ensuring the future survival of wattled cranes. “We operate convenient daily flights between Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg and the ease of moving chicks safely and quickly to the rearers minimises stress and strain on the chicks,” says Karin Murray, marketing and sales manager at Airlink.

When the chicks are too hot, they pant, like a dog, and when they are too cold, they shiver.

– Elaine Bratt

For the trip Elaine makes use of a cooler box that has been modified into a temperature regulating device. “The temperature in the box has to be between 37.3°C and 37.4°C at all times. When the chicks are too hot, they pant, like a dog, and when they are too cold, they shiver. Another issue is that the chicks can’t be exposed to X-ray machines at airports because the radiation might be harmful to them.”

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The modified box Elaine uses to transport the chicks from KZN to Johannesburg.

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A hand-rearer dresses in a costume resembling an adult wattled crane to feed a young bird. Picture courtesy of Johannesburg Zoo

Hand-rearing chicks

Elaine specialises in hand-rearing at the zoo and she is one passionate woman with an astonishing love for the birds. Since 2006 the experienced staff and volunteers have successfully hand-reared 24 chicks, the last in 2013. Raising the little ones is a daunting, time-consuming and intensive process. According to Elaine, the cranes, eggs and chicks “are exceptionally precious to us”. They act as an insurance policy against the disappearance of the wattled crane.

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Elaine explains how chicks are fed using this special puppet. Food is picked up with the puppet’s wooden beak and then passed on to the chick.

At the Bill Barnes Nature Reserve managed by the KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation (KZNCF), staff hand-rear second-egg chicks in their natural environment to try and produce more ‘wild’ birds that have a better chance of being released into the wild. This was successfully achieved for the first time in 2014. Here three second-egg chicks were hand-reared last year using puppets and full-body costumes – “to look like mommy”. KZNCF will oversee any releasing of wattled cranes into the wild in the future.

At the zoo, staff members have to wear white lab coats and white gumboots when feeding or walking the chicks. “At no time may the birds be touched, as chicks or adults. Humanisation has to be kept to a minimum at all times,” Elaine says

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This board is the staff’s bible when hand-rearing chicks: their walking schedule, dietary and weight information.

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When chicks are present, talking is usually not permitted.

Walking the chicks is imperative for the development of their legs. The chicks can be walked only within controlled environments and not on general zoo grounds as they might swallow small metal pieces, like the rings from cold drink cans, which may result in metal poisoning. “Another challenge is that chicks have to be walked individually. If two chicks were walked together, one might kill the other one. It’s based on their natural instincts.”

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Thoko at the centre where chicks are kept safe in individual rooms.

I meet a few of the trusty volunteers. Barbara Botwinick from America sought a new challenge after she retired and started volunteering at the zoo in 2011. “In that year we had six chicks and 10 volunteers had to walk them around the clock. We even had a roster,” says Barbara.

Staff had to spent the nights with the birds for the first two weeks as they required feeding every two hours. “Night shift,” says Thoko Masina. She has already reared 24 wattled cranes. Elaine adds: “She has the most experience with rearing cranes in South Africa. She truly has a gift. It is fascinating how the birds listen to her.”

As I watch the hand-reared cranes, now fully grown, stalk through the grass, I cannot help but wonder… Will I one day be privileged enough to see a wattled crane in the wild? Thanks to the selfless efforts of Elaine, Thoko, Barbara and many other conservationists, that hope remains alive.

Did you know?

  • At the zoo chicks are named after a specific sponsor who donates a once-off amount of R10,000.
  • Chicks weigh between 100 to 120g after hatching. The zoo’s smallest chick to date, Crystal, weighed only 80g.
  • During breeding seasons (June to August) wattled cranes are particularly grumpy and their beaks are apparently a force to be reckoned with.
  • Chicks will reach the size of an adult at about six months, but their feathers will taken on the distinctive colours only at about three years old.
  • When communicating with chicks, a “hum-hum” sound is made, while with adults different pitches of “prrrrrrr” noises are used.
Mitch (left) and Ginger, the zoo’s most successful breeding pair. Ginger was rescued from a wildfire in 1987. Image by JP de Vos - Msy 2015

Mitch (left) and Ginger, the zoo’s most successful breeding pair. Ginger was rescued from a wildfire in 1987.

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KK the impossible. He is aggressive and picky as to who is welcome in his enclosure. And look at those wattles. These are thermo regulating – when it is hot, the wattles are longer, while on colder days, the wattles are shorter.