Notes from the President: Saving Cranes, Changing Lives

In April 2019, our President and CEO Rich Beilfuss visited our project sites in Kenya with Western Kenya Kipsaina Crane and Wetland Conservation Group Coordinator Maurice Wanjala. Rich planted this teak tree in a plantation managed by Maurice in 1993!

What does supporting girls to stay in school, marketing handicrafts, planting bamboo or managing cattle have to do with our mission to save cranes and wetlands? Everything!

Everywhere we work, cranes inspire people with their cultural significance, visibility, extraordinary beauty, dramatic migrations and striking behavior. But often the most threatened cranes occur in some of the poorest and most densely populated places on earth — places where poverty puts enormous pressures on their wetland homes. Wetlands are often converted to farmland, drained and ditched, over-grazed with livestock, burned too frequently, or unsustainably harvested for vegetation, soils and wildlife. Land use changes in the surrounding watershed degrade wetlands further, altering water flows, reducing water quality and triggering erosion. And our changing climate makes all of these challenges much worse.

Because we believe that a future with cranes and wetlands means a healthier and more liveable planet for all, we are focused on innovative ways to improve livelihoods for those who share their lands with cranes and other wildlife.

Local employees complete finishing work on a basket order in Phu My, Vietnam. The community uses a local wetland plant to produce the baskets and other handicrafts, which helps save the wetlands for both people and cranes.

To prevent the conversion of Phu My wetland, an important home for Sarus Cranes in Vietnam, to intensive rice farming, we developed a profitable handicraft business that improves local livelihoods through the sustainable production and sale of handbags and baskets made from the dominant wetland sedge Lepironia. The project has tripled local employment in the community and increased household income by 400%. The Sarus Crane population using these wetlands has responded dramatically, increasing from fewer than ten birds to over 300. The provincial government, convinced by this alternative development pathway, formally protected the wetland from intensive agricultural development. For this work, we received the United Nations Dubai International Award for Best Practices, the UNDP Equator Prize, and the World Bank Development Marketplace Award. Purchase your own Phu My Lepironia tote.

In the Grey Crowned Crane lands of East Africa, we link wetland conservation with clean water, poverty reduction, climate change mitigation and other sustainable development goals for the region. We provide training and mentorship to community members to encourage livelihood practices that incorporate climate-smart, biodiversity-friendly agriculture, such as bamboo cultivation, beekeeping, goat milk and fodder production.

Earlier this spring, 100 community members received 35,000 fodder seedlings and hoes for planting at Rugezi Marsh in Rwanda. The seedlings will reduce the impact of livestock grazing and vegetation removal on wetlands near the community.

At Rugezi Marsh in Rwanda, we are mentoring more than 1,000 farmers to produce fodder for their livestock and bean stakes for their vegetation gardens to reduce the impact of livestock grazing and vegetation removal on wetland breeding grounds. In Uganda, we are developing new strategic partnerships that incorporate family planning, public health, and education of girls and women into our community projects, with the understanding that population, health, livelihoods and environmental quality are inseparably intertwined. Communities, in turn, commit to positive conservation actions such as creating buffer zones between their crops and wetlands, replanting degraded wetlands that were plowed and cultivated, and reducing disturbance to breeding cranes. Step by step, we are reversing the decline of this iconic species.

A third of the world’s Wattled Cranes are found on the Kafue Flats of Zambia.

Further south on the enormous floodplains of Zambia, we are creating a new protected area model for the Kafue Flats, as a “working wetland for all” founded on the wealth of ecosystem services that healthy floodplains provide for people and wildlife. Working with community leaders and the Zambian Department of National Parks and Wildlife, we must find the elusive balance between the incredible biodiversity of the flats, including a third of the world’s Wattled Cranes, and the cattle grazers, fishers and farmers who also depend on this amazing wetland.

Across Asia, Africa, and here at home, we are working through cranes to change lives for the better, and make our world a better place. Thanks for your support.

Story submitted by Rich Beilfuss, President and CEO. Click here to learn more about our global programs.