The Wattled Crane Recovery Programme
After what seemed like eons I finally graduated with a Diploma in Nature Conservation majoring in animal studies, plant studies, conservation ecology, and resource management. It has certainly been a long journey with the University of South Africa (UNISA). In between juggling a full-time job and studying part-time there were definitely moments when giving up seemed like a good idea. I eventually made the decision to quit my job and complete my studies.
Last year was especially tough as UNISA requires you to complete a year of field work spanning over seven categories, plus compiling a detailed portfolio, followed by a nerve wracking interview by a panel of moderators in order to qualify.
And this is over and above the three years worth of coursework including practical excursions.
But in the end I am really glad I persevered and pushed through. And although, I am still bummed at myself for being too lazy to request a re-mark as I was only 1% short of graduating cum laude (eeps!), attending the graduation ceremony with my sisters was definitely a proud moment.
It was a lot of hard work but now that I am reflecting on my practical year, there were a great many experiences and some good exposure into the field. My initial intention was to volunteer my way through the year but I was lucky to get an internship with the Joburg City Parks and Zoo thanks to my awesome mentor.
My internship with Joburg City Parks & Zoo
Through Joburg City Parks & Zoo I was able to spread my year over different places, getting a broad range of experience. I started off at the Kloofendal Nature Reserve where I did a water assessment, soil erosion project, and vegetation survey among other things. I also spent two months at the Joburg Zoo where I worked at the primates and bird sections.
As a conservationist, Zoo’s are not my favourite places as I believe that all wildlife should be free, but the Joburg Zoo did have some good conservation programs such as the Ground Hornbill project and the Wattled Crane Recovery programme (WCRP) which turned out to be the highlight of my year.
Working with wattled cranes
Wattled Cranes (Bugeranus carunculatus) are the most endangered crane species on the African continent.
Over the last decade they've had a 38% decline in wild populations. And with only 250 individuals remaining in South Africa, they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.
The program is run in partnership with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria, and is aimed at preventing the local extinction of the Wattled Crane in South Africa through the release of captive-reared individuals into critically endangered wild populations across the country.
I was based at a facility in the Free State province which was focused on pairing adult birds for breeding. My experience with the birds was awesome. Wattled Cranes are truly majestic birds – tall and graceful, and each with their own unique personality. Pairing them was no easy feat though. As graceful as they are, they are large birds and can be rather ferocious. In fact, I myself nearly had my ass handed to me on several occasions.
But on the other hand, they are extremely endearing and once they become used to your presence you can expect heaps of bashful affection.
Cranes are renowned for their elaborate courtship dancing and synchronised calls. One of the keys ways to tell that a couple have pair-bonded is by observing them calling in unison.
Their feisty temperaments also mean that that we had to be extremely careful when pairing them as if we paired the wrong couple, it could lead to a fatality. And being responsible for the death of an endangered species was not on my career goals list. But once paired, they typically mate for life.
Large chunks of my day were spent monitoring them, observing their behaviour and collecting data. To many this seemed tedious but the way I saw it, I got to spend my days in the sun bird-watching – so I had no complaints. And when one of the couples finally hatched a chick, I was ecstatic. Up until then, the program didn’t have much success with cranes raising their own chicks in captivity.
But instead of separating the chick from its parents for hand-rearing, they decided to give them a chance and to everyone’s surprise, they did a great job.
Both parents were hands on and very protective. And had a little help from us to provide medical care and good nutrition for the chick to grow healthy and strong.
Gaining valuable experience
By the end of my internship year I was lucky to find work as an assistant manager at the Cradle Nature Reserve, located within the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. I was sad to leave the birds but happy that the program saw some success over the last year including one new pairing of a couple I had been working with before I left. It has always been a dream of mine to work with endangered species, so being able to work with these amazing birds in my internship year was a big beautiful feather in my cap.