Census: Conversion of wetlands, droughts threaten special birds

Sedge of cranes at Lake Ol' Bolossat in Nyandarua County on May 12, 2022. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Conversion of wetlands, intensive droughts and captive keeping of grey crowned cranes remain a major threat to the endangered birds, the second countrywide census has revealed.

The population census flagged the threats as driving the birds to extinction even as scientists laud increased awareness efforts and survey efforts in key crane hotspots.

Collection of birds' eggs and chicks as well as trapping them for illegal market and consumption, scientists said, also remain a threat that should be regulated.

“Among the main threats affecting the species as observed or gathered in the field includes drought, conversion of native habitats to unfavourable uses, captive keeping, eggs collection, and chicks and adults trapping for illegal markets and local consumption,” Dr Wanyoike Wamiti, a researcher from the National Museums of Kenya, said.

The latest data from the census which took place in February and March this year, showed a slight increase in numbers recorded in 2019 during the first census.

The current statistics gathered from 34 counties stand at 8,334, an increase from 7,776 birds counted in 2019.

The data shows Uasin Gishu, Nyandarua, and Trans Nzoia counties hold nearly half of the grey-crowned crane population. Together, they host 4,026 bird species, translating to 48 per cent. Uasin Gishu hosts the largest population where over 2,200 birds were recorded.

Buildings adjacent to a wetland in Dunga area near Lake Victoria. [Michael Mute, Standard]

“Coming after a consecutive three years’ drought in most parts of the country where cranes had poor to no breeding activities, the Kenyan population is therefore reliably estimated to lie between 8,500-10,000 birds, showing that the population is relatively stable or slightly increased compared to the 2019 census that estimated it at 8,000-10,000 individuals,” Dr Wamiti added.

The population increase, he said, can be attributed to increased survey efforts and conservation initiatives in key crane areas.

Paul Gacheru, a species expert at Nature Kenya, said with current rate of conversion of wetlands into farmlands, grey-crowned cranes remain under threat as they are highly dependent such areas.

“Habitat loss remains the biggest threat for these birds. They are dependent on these areas for breeding and without them, their future remains bleak. People are turning these wetlands for agriculture and grazing and knowingly driving these species to extinction,” Gacheru said.

To get reliable trends on the population of the birds, he said there was a need to map out specific breeding and feeding grounds and keep regular monitoring for good trends,” he added.

In 2019, organisations including National Museums of Kenya, Nature Kenya, and Biodiversity Conservation Union – Germany (NABU) among other stakeholders, undertook the first national grey crowned census.

The census was conducted after scientists warned of their estimated decline resulting from habitat loss and illegal collection of birds' eggs.

It is estimated that Kenya had a population of 35,000 grey-crowned cranes in 1986, it declined to 12,500 in 2015 to current figures that stand slightly above 8,000.

Research indicates Kenya loses at least 800 grey-crowned cranes annually. While the scientists recommended a future countrywide survey at five-year intervals until an increase in population is reported, they called for a review of wildlife regulations to stem illegal markets of the birds.