"Sadly, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, with many more having been taken illegally," says Kerryn Morrison, manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's African Crane Conservation Programme (EWT-ACCP).
"People often don't realise that one needs a permit to trade in and own cranes. It is illegal to take cranes out of the wild." Often legally-owned blue crane pairs are used as a front to move illegally captured chicks. A legal pair of blue cranes is kept, and crane chicks are then illegally removed from the wild and sold under the premise that the legal pair reproduced the chicks in question.
With the lure of the supposed status acquired by keeping cranes in a private garden or shopping centre, a demand is created for cranes, which places pressure on the wild populations. Many unsuspecting people then become involved in illegal trade, as they find birds quite readily available.
The blue crane, Anthropoides paradiseus, South Africa's national bird, is a near endemic to the country and is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red Data List.
Its charismatic stature, elaborate dances and the fact that it is easily recognisable are the reasons why this crane is sought after for captivity. Numbering around 25 000, a few vagrant birds are seen in neighbouring countries from time to time, and a sedentary population of around 35 birds is found in Namibia.
Following a severe decline in the 1980s and 1990s, the species' population size appears to have stabilised, probably mainly in response to the work undertaken by the EWT-ACCP and its partners, in particular the Overberg Crane Group, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife and the KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation.
Over the last two decades these organisations have worked closely with landowners in the major crane regions, helping them to find viable solutions to the crop damage that cranes sometimes cause, without killing or disturbing the birds.
Today farmers use agrochemicals more responsibly than they did in the past and are far more tolerant of cranes living on their properties. Furthermore, the work undertaken by the EWT's Wildlife and Energy Programme to make powerlines more visible to large flying birds has seen a 60 percent reduction in bird/power line collisions in the last decade.
The removal of cranes from the wild for the illegal trade market is however an increasing threat. The EWT-ACCP undertook a blue crane population modelling exercise in 2009. Analysis of the results suggests that the population remains on a knife-edge and that an increase in mortality rates could once again swing the population into a steady decline.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust asks anyone looking to keep cranes to carefully consider their decision. One needs to ensure that they are legally acquired and that their purchase of cranes will not contribute to the demise of the blue crane population in the country.
"Ask the relevant questions around the origin of the cranes to be bought and ask for parentage testing to ensure that the birds you are buying are actually the chicks of the pair in question. It is also vital that the relevant provincial permits are obtained."
The law provides the following penalties according to the latest amendment 27 May 2009 (Government Gazette Nr. 32237), which came into effect in September 2009 (Government Gazette Nr. 32580):
- Imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or a fine of a maximum of R5 million or both for the first offence
- For second conviction, imprisonment for 10 years and a fine of a maximum of R10 million
The African Crane Conservation Programme's important community and crane conservation work is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Rand Merchant Bank, Lufthansa, the Anglo American Chairman's Fund, Eskom, SASOL, Millstream, Agricol, Senqu Clothing and the Johannesburg Zoo.