Notes from the President: A New Stronghold for Black Crowned Cranes Discovered in Chad

13,885 Black Crowned Cranes!!! I’ve recently returned from a remarkable trip to Zakouma National Park in Chad, where we had the pleasure of counting the highest number of cranes ever recorded from the ground, anywhere in Africa, for any species.

We went to Zakouma with high hopes – previous counts here by others recorded more than 7,000 Black Crowned Cranes and suggested that Zakouma and southern Chad are an important stronghold for this Vulnerable species. But our count exceeded our wildest expectations, nearly doubling the population estimate here and elevating Zakouma to the status of one of the most important crane areas in the world.  We saw many hundreds of family groups with one to three chicks, with most chicks appearing to be about nine to ten months old, suggesting their breeding is timed to the next rain season, which starts in May -or June.

Our intrepid research team for the trip included International Crane Foundation African Program leader Kerryn Morrison and Tom and Kathy Leiden of the Leiden Conservation Foundation.

With sweltering dry season temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit each day, we set off to the marshes around Zakouma and counted cranes for six to 10 hours each day for seven days.

We had tremendous support from the African Parks, the conservation organization that runs the park together with the Government of Chad.  African Parks invited us to the do the survey, and they are doing a wonderful job managing the park—reducing elephant poaching from more than 1,000 per year to zero over the past five years, for example, and is establishing the first real tourism operation in Chad. African Parks provided a vehicle, driver and armed guard for each day of the survey, and provided a one-hour aerial survey of wetlands we couldn’t access by road.

Zakouma isn’t just amazing for cranes. We recorded 35 mammal species, including daily observations of scores of elephant, lion, buffalo, roan, tiang, hartebeest, kob, waterbuck and many other species – and some rarities like caracal and serval. Zakouma also supports the highest density of waterbirds I have seen in Africa – hundreds of thousands of spur-wing geese, white-faced ducks, knob-billed geese and large breeding populations of five species of storks as well as herons, egrets, spoonbills and many others. I recorded 175 bird species in all during our week there.

One of our most interesting days on the count was actually outside of Zakouma. We ventured north of the park to a large wetland inhabited by seasonal Arabic-speaking nomads who migrate regionally with the rains and floodwaters. This wetland was chock-a-block full of camels, cattle and goats, and their herders and fishers, yet supported 2,200 Black Crowned Cranes and tens of thousands of waterbirds. This is another great example of a “working wetland” for biodiversity and livelihoods.

Over the past 40 years, Black Crowned Cranes have nearly disappeared from two West African countries, Nigeria and Mali, where they once numbered in the tens of thousands. Elsewhere across their range, they occupy many lands controlled by Boko Haram and other insurgency groups.  Chad is relatively stable – despite having six neighbors fighting civil wars in Libya, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger! And, the Black Crowned Cranes here do not appear to face any serious threats. This amazing count gives me great hope for the future of this species. Together with their strongholds in Senegal and Ethiopia, Black Crowned Cranes appear to be fairing much better than their cousins, the Endangered Grey Crowned Crane, which are more dependent on agricultural lands and have been vanishing across East Africa.

Our next steps? We will do a wet season aerial survey of nesting sites to better understand where the birds are breeding. We also seek to put satellite trackers on several cranes during the next dry season to better understand their seasonal movements and use of habitats outside the park.

I am very grateful to African Parks for providing so much logistical support and encouragement for this survey, and to the Leiden Conservation Foundation for their strong support of this trip and several other International Crane Foundation initiatives.

Story submitted by Rich Beilfuss, President and CEO. Click here to learn more about our work in Sub-Saharan Africa.