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].)

Poachers from Tanzania, reputed to run one of the biggest wildlife trading centers in Africa, also illegally capture cranes, according to the report.

Poachers poison the birds or catch them with rough tools, such as metallic traps. Sometimes the cranes' wings are cut.

The birds are then transported—often without adequate food or space—in wire mesh cages across Lake Victoria into Tanzania for eventual sale as pets in Europe. (Related news: "On Africa's Largest Lake, Fishers Suffer Falling Stocks, Rising Demand" [March 13, 2007].)

Chicks sell for at least 30 U.S. dollars and adults sell for 20 U.S. dollars.

But not all the cranes survive being captured, the report said.

"To catch a hundred cranes, you have to kill four or five times as many in the process," Byaruhanda of Nature Uganda said.

Often, older birds caring for their young are captured, endangering future generations of the birds in Uganda. Gray crowned cranes are also found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and parts of South Africa.

Encroached Wetlands

Despite the crane's respected status, conservationists say the Ugandan government has made no effort to conserve the wetlands where the species lives.

Rice farmers are increasingly draining wetlands in western Uganda where the cranes nest and forage.

"The crowned crane is systematically being displaced," said Moses Mapesa, director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. The animals often end up outside of protected areas, he added.

As a result, Nature Uganda is collaborating with other regional African wildlife groups to educate traditional communities on how to preserve remaining wetlands.

"This is our national symbol," Mapesa said.

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