Ugandan Cranes Declining Due to "Witch Doctors"

Alexis Okeowo in Kampala, Uganda
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2007

Uganda's national bird, the gray crowned crane, is threatened by "witch doctors" and commercial poachers, a new report says.

Commonly known as the crested crane, the bird's image adorns memorabilia, clothing, and souvenirs in the East African country. It's also the mascot for the national soccer team.

In the past decade, though, the crane population in Uganda has fallen from 50,000 to 20,000, primarily due to witch doctors—also known as traditional healers—who use the animals in folk medicine and poachers who take the birds from their natural habitat.

Development has also encroached onto the cranes' wetland habitat.

"The gray crowned crane is getting in more and more trouble," said Achilles Byaruhanga, director of the Kampala-based nonprofit organization Nature Uganda, which co-authored the report with the Wildlife Conservation Trust and the International Crane Foundation.

Thriving Demand

The team conducted the study from April to September 2007 in southern Uganda, near the Tanzanian border. The traditional healers cooperated with the research under the condition they would remain anonymous, since taking cranes for medicinal reasons is illegal in Uganda.

The researchers found more than 40 dead cranes in the shrines of such healers. (See a map of Uganda.)

Because cranes mate for life, local people believe marriages and relationships will last longer if people consume the feathers and eggs of the birds, according to a traditional healer who lives near the state of Masaka in southwestern Uganda. He wished to remain anonymous because he feared his business would be shut down by the government.

The healers crush the eggs with herbs to sell as a "love potion." Feathers, claws, and beaks of the cranes are also used in drinks and as decorations for promoting monogamy and affection.

The crane is also perceived as a good omen that can cast away evil spirits from children.

(Related news: "World Cup Witchcraft: Africa Teams Turn to Magic for Aid" [June 30, 2006].)

Continued on Next Page >>


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