“Our cranes”:
How we came to love the brave but persecuted Blue Cranes

It was about more than conservation 30 years ago, when the Overberg Crane Group first launched. For these founding members of the OCG, they went on a deeply personal journey that led them to protect Blue Cranes – a journey from gate crashing a meeting to dealing with horrendous poisoning incidents. What started out as curiosity about Blue Cranes evolved into a love and respect for these brave, clever and at the time, persecuted birds.

 

These are the stories of the founders, and how “the cranes” became “our cranes”. 

By Ann and Mike Scott

(Cape Nature Conservation and Museums at the time)

Today, South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane is well established as one of the charismatic conservation and tourism icons for the Overberg. Yet this status did not always exist.

Way back in 1991, when we were both based at De Hoop Nature Reserve, a call came through late one Friday afternoon.

Some 50 Blue Cranes had been found poisoned on a farm near Bredasdorp; most were dead, but about nine were still alive. Could we come and save them? The suspected poison was an organophosphate product, widely used for the treatment of blowfly on sheep.

At that stage, we at Cape Nature Conservation and Museums had had little to do with Blue Cranes. They did not occur on the Reserve, where the primary focus was on other endangered species including the Cape Vulture and African Oystercatcher. We were ill equipped to deal with this kind of emergency.

What to do about this emergency?

First, we phoned out friend Dr Gerhard Verdoorn at the EWT Poison Working Group. Did we have atropine? No, we replied! Well, then we needed to obtain some valium (a well-known tranquillizer) from a chemist and inject the birds. The dosage must be according to their weight.

An obliging chemist kindly kept the business open until we could collect the drug. And then we set off. When we arrived at the farm, with the sun starting to approach the horizon at an alarming rate, Mike stood outside on a bathroom scale holding a crane and we weighed them together, subtracted his weight to arrive at that of the bird, and then managed to inject an appropriate dose. As we recall it, five or six of the birds managed to survive.

This somewhat inauspicious beginning became the seed for an ongoing commitment. “The cranes” became “our cranes”. Some of our conservation-minded farmers approached us and expressed a desire to become part of addressing the problem. Based on much talking, listening and working together, the Overberg Crane Group was born in October 1991. It has been guided by a comprehensive, dynamic action plan that continues to involve more and yet more enthusiastic participants. And the rest is history.

By Mick D’Alton

(Bredasdorp farmer)

I was not a single-species person by nature and was interested in all the facets of nature and our biodiversity. It was a time in my life when, given the chance, I would get involved in any conservation or scientific research project enabling me to learn about different species, meet interesting people and go to new areas. So when Ann and Mike explained the plight of the Blue Crane and the massive threat that they were under with numbers plummeting and poisoning incidents increasing, I decided to support the effort to improve the situation.

At a meeting with Ann and Mike, Wicus, Hennie and Elsabe Aucamp at De Hoop Nature Reserve, we took the decision to start the OCG. Elsabe, an MSc student, acted as our OCG Field Officer while doing her fieldwork and spent a lot of time either with Wicus and Hannalie in Caledon or with us in Bredasdorp.

Facing off with a herd of cattle

While assisting her with the data capture, I had many amazing opportunities to spend time with the cranes and learn about these special birds. I will always remember watching a pair stand with wings outstretched in front of nest as a herd of cattle bore down on them. They never flinched and the animals were forced to change course and avoid the nest.    

I soon understood that conserving this iconic species had far-reaching consequences, drawing tremendous awareness about nature while also creating a conservation attitude that benefitted so many other species. And I have never regretted the time and resources spent on this project as I have not only gained knowledge about our natural environment but also gained  enjoyment, contentment and lifelong friends, both human and avian.

By WIcus Leeuwner

(Hermanus farmer)

They say I gate crashed the first meeting and refused to leave!

I’ll use the words of Nico Myburg of Helderberg  Nature Reserve to cover up my fading memory. He said: “Let’s not spoil a good story with facts.” After reading in our local Caledon newspaper about a meeting to be held at De Hoop to discuss the plight of big birds in the Overberg I decided to attend. Through two of my photography mentors, the said Nico Myburg and Peter Steyn, I had an interest in birds and as Chairperson of the Caledon Farmers Union I felt it my duty to represent the farmers at the meeting. It was a good decision. Only afterwards I realised that the meeting was for Cape Nature Conservation personnel.

I had the special privilege to work with people like Ann Scott – the mother of the cranes – and a fellow farmer like Mick.  It was impossible to say no to the soft spoken Ann. She had a gentle persuasion that motivated all of us. At our monthly meetings with all the farmer’s associations, I could spread the gospel about the cranes to get every farmer aboard. By joining all the researchers who stayed with us on the farm while they worked in the veld, I had many opportunities to gather photographs for our awareness programme.

It was a wonderful opportunity to give something back to nature.  We take so much out of it.

 

 

Hennie Lötter

(Caledon farmer)

Caledon farmer, Hennie Lötter passed away in 2011. But his legacy lives on in the Blue Cranes he played a role in protecting – even 30 years later.

His son, MG, shared some photos of those early days, when Hennie became involved in crane conservation. He was part of the team that placed rings on the legs of young Blue Cranes (seen in the photo below – Hennie is second from the right), in order to identify individuals and better understand their movements within South Africa. And he implemented many conservation measures on his own farm to protect Blue Cranes. For example, here he included steps in the water troughs so that Blue Crane chicks could escape drowning by climbing out (in the photo at the bottom).