Tag Archives: stewardship projects

Protecting Wattled Cranes and Wetlands

On a winter’s afternoon in late July, potato farmer John Campbell and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Tanya Smith surveyed the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve from a hilltop on Ivanhoe Farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Separated from Smith’s binoculars by a swathe of golden brown grass, the water pooled in the wetland basin that sources the Umgeni River glistens in the mild sunshine as it winds its way for 265 km to meet the ocean at Durban’s coastline.

r umngeni vlei 022

“We’ve got two pairs [of wattled cranes] nesting in here at the moment,” Smith, a senior field officer with the African Crane Conservation Programme told IPS. A week earlier she had flown over the wetland for an annual aerial survey of the critically endangered birds. The birds can grow taller than five feet and are characterised by a bumpy red patch of skin between their beaks and eyes.

There are an estimated 80 breeding pairs of wattled cranes remaining in South Africa. The total South African population is less than 260.

wattled crane photo by Ian White

To maintain Umgeni Vlei’s biodiversity and protect the regal cranes’ habitat, the South African government declared the reserve a Ramsar Site in April this year, giving it special protection as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on the protection of wetlands.

“On the Ramsar-designated wetland we’ve had up to seven breeding pairs of wattled cranes, but the number fluctuates every year,” said Smith. “If you include [the surrounding] wetlands we’ve had up to 13 breeding pairs – it’s a huge proportion of the country’s breeding population.”

Wetlands on the land owned by Ivanhoe Farming Company, of which Campbell is a director, serve as home to up to six breeding pairs of wattled cranes. To help conserve them, Campbell has designated 800 hectares of farmland which buttress the reserve.

This is a protected area with nature reserve status through the KwaZulu-Natal Biodiversity Stewardship Programme run by provincial government body Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife.

“I think cranes and agriculture can co-exist,” Campbell told IPS. “Most farmers, I find, are conservation-minded.” Wetland preservation is key for wattled crane survival.

Ivanhoe_Wattled Cranes_landscape

South Africa’s population of wattled cranes dwindled through the 1980s, largely due to deaths related to flying into power lines, as well as intentional and unintentional poisoning, Smith said. Population numbers bottomed out in the early 2000s and have gradually increased since, thanks to conservation efforts and increased tagging of power lines, she said.

The cranes are the most wetland-dependent species of crane in South Africa and use their spear-like beaks to forage on bulbs in wetland regions, Smith said. The birds are highly territorial and rely on the permanent wetlands at the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve and surrounding private land for food, mating and nesting.

The KwaZulu-Natal province is at the heart of wattled crane activity and is home to about 90 percent of the country’s population. Many of these cranes reside in the Umgeni River’s upper catchment area. “If we lose the birds in these territories then we won’t have a viable population in the country,” said Smith.

Ivanhoe_Wattled Cranes_landscape_1

Since wetlands are the most threatened of all South Africa’s ecosystems, according to South Africa’s 2011 National Biodiversity Assessment, the cranes’ survival is closely tied to wetland conservation. At the same time, the birds serve as an “indicator species” – their presence signals good wetland health.

“If you have wattled cranes [on wetlands], you know you have good water quality and the biodiversity is in good stead,” Ann Burke, conservation projects manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation told IPS. Stewardship protects wetlands and birds.

While the Umgeni Vlei Nature Reserve’s designation as a Ramsar site offers protection to wattled cranes, it is only a small sliver of land of 958 hectares. Campbell is helping protect the birds, and ensure they have areas where they can breed unhindered. He has designated an 800-hectare segment of his farmland as reserve, and has agreed to manage it as such.


The reserve status granted to the designated land at Ivanhoe will be written into the title deeds of the farm. The protected land remains privately owned, and does not become government land, but the reserve status is binding if it is sold to new owners.

Such stewardship agreements offer longstanding protection against development and farming practices that could put fertiliser run-off into the wetland system, the World-Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Susan Viljoen, who is facilitating negotiations between landowners and the government for the biodiversity stewardship agreements told IPS.

“It’s a far stronger guarantee that your land, and those farms, will be managed in a way that is compatible for the birds and for their breeding,” said Viljoen. “The main thing is that you’ve got this permanently open relationship and communication between conservation groupings and the landowner.”


Another landowner in the region has signed a similar stewardship agreement for 635 hectares of land, while the WWF is negotiating with six other landowners to protect portions of their lands, which total 7,569 hectares, said Viljoen.

“To someone who doesn’t really understand the detail of this process it almost might sound like that’s not very many,” she said. “But what I’ve learned through facilitating this process myself is stewardship is long and it’s slow, but the thing is – once it’s in place it’s forever.”

happy valley

Two wetland areas on the Ivanhoe Farm that were drained and converted to pastures for cattle grazing decades ago will also be rehabilitated through the government’s Working for Wetlands programme. Although it could take up to 10 years for the wetlands to return to a state where they can support wattled cranes, Campbell hopes to see birds inhabiting them in future.

“We can see what we’ve done wrong in the past,” said Campbell. “And this is a chance to correct it.”  Ivanhoe Farm  is a member of the Dargle Conservancy.

Article by Brendon Bosworth, first published Aug 5 2013 http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/08/steps-to-protect-south-africas-wattled-cranes/

A Taste of the Midlands

Yesterday, Wildlands Conservation Trust gathered a group of local environmental NGO’s to meet their American guests.  The group from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) was visiting South Africa to observe the biodiversity stewardship projects they are funding in the Albany-Pondoland-Maputaland Hotspot in action and to meet the people who make this happen.

The Midlands Conservancies Forum was delighted to host the group at The Cairn of Old Kilgobbin in Dargle, knowing that our part of the world is particularly special and certain to impress.  The venue, on a working farm beside the mist-belt forest, was ideal for the occasion.  Dargle Local Living (an initiative of the Dargle Conservancy) took the opportunity to showcase local produce and provided lunch. This ensured that the meal had a very low carbon footprint, appropriate for a gathering of environmentalists.  Everything was grown and produced right in the Dargle Valley – besides the Notties beer.  On such a hot Summer’s day, a couple of additional kilometres were easily forgiven!  Daniel Marnewick and Nick Theron of Birdlife commented that they felt a whole lot better about driving all the way to the Midlands, knowing the low food miles their lunch had produced.

Guests enjoyed homemade lemon cordial and refreshing mint syrup on arrival before settling down to lunch.  The meal consisted of simply prepared vegetables in season – cucumbers, marrows, tomatoes, brinjals, peppers, beans, garlic and potatoes.  Served with local feta and mozzarella cheeses, homemade duck egg mayonnaise, basil pesto, artisan breads, vegan quiche and free range chicken roasted with fresh herbs.

“Delicious” pronounced Patricia Zurita, Executive Director of CEPF.  Peter Thompson added “I was blown away by the amazing lunch. Food like that needs to be savoured very slowly and discussed…”  The table decorations of succulent Hawothia plants were a conversation point too. Dumile Tshingana of Wildlands, explained to curious diners – “they are called umathithibala in Zulu and planted at entrances to discourage unwelcome men and as a protective charm from lightning.”

A few presentations on Midlands Projects followed.  Nikki Brighton introduced the concept of the MCF with glorious photographs of the fauna and flora and scenery of the Midlands (Tanya Smith of EWT was particularly delighted at all the crane photos).  Christina Potgieter represented the Botanical Society, illustrating the important areas they plan to protect under the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme.  Peter Thompson from the Game Rangers Association of SA and Jan Phelan of PAMS talked about the new era in conservation, their training programme and many other ideas.

To escape the afternoon heat, everyone headed for the forest at Kilgobbin Cottage, led by Barend Booysen.  This forest walk is one of the most popular on the Midlands Walks calendar.  Knysna loeries flashed red overhead, Samango monkeys clambered in the tree tops, a tiny bright green spider was spotted and everyone savoured the shade and damp earth under the cool canopy. Ren Ito of the World Bank, couldn’t believe his luck. “I have only just moved to this post in environmental matters. I used to spend my time at airforce bases in war zones and inspecting nuclear sites.  This has been wonderful. I am so glad that I finally came back to the real earth, and very much enjoyed joining you all today.”

A cup of tea was just what was needed as the afternoon shadows grew.  Served with delectable chocolate brownies, thick jersey cream (and fresh Cape Gooseberries for Kevin McCann, which Russell Frandsen from CEPF tasted for the first time) – delicious. We thanked CEPF for spending time getting to know our projects and Patricia Zurita thanked everyone for the work they do with such enthusiasm and passion on behalf of the planet.