Uganda’s grey crowned crane has been in sharp decline due to loss of habitat and poaching.Across its range in East and Southern Africa, grey crowned crane populations fell by more than half between 1995 and 2005.Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority has acted to reclaim and restore wetland habitat vital to the cranes’ breeding.The Cranes and Wetlands initiative is creating self-sustaining incentives for communities living around wetlands to rehabilitate and protect wetlands areas. KABALE DISTRICT, Uganda — Ten years ago, grey crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum) had become a rare sight along the highway connecting the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to Rwanda. Across the birds’ entire range in East and Southern Africa, the cranes’ populations had declined steeply. But efforts to restore their wetland habitats in Uganda are succeeding, and birds and local communities alike are benefiting. Jimmy Muhozi Muhebwa first surveyed Uganda’s grey crowned crane population between 2001 and 2003 as research for his Masters thesis. “We found out in 2003, through counting and then using computer modeling, that Uganda had 10,000, plus or minus 500, grey crowned cranes — but reducing,” Muhebwa told Mongabay. A subsequent study in 2007 estimated that the population had fallen by 14% — to around 8,600. When Muhebwa and his team surveyed the population in 2013, the numbers seemed to have stabilized. The cranes are Uganda’s national bird, appearing on the country’s flag and the coat of arms, and Muhebwa’s surveys coincided with a dawning realization of the threat to the species across its whole range. There are two sub-species of grey crowned cranes, also known as crested cranes: Balearica regulorum gibbericeps is found across East Africa, and B. r. regulorum in Southern Africa. These beautiful birds, with their distinctive golden crowns, make their homes in a range of habitats including marshes, temporary pools, and pans or dams with tall vegetation. They prefer wetland areas with open grasslands or farmland nearby where they can forage for seed heads, tender new grass, or grains and pulses. The cranes also eat insects, frogs, crabs, and lizards. Potato field in the Mugandu-Buramba wetland. Uganda’s wetlands have been heavily encroached upon for farms, grazing, and settlement. Image by Fredrick Mugira for Mongabay. Arresting the decline B. regulorum was listed as a species of “least concern” right into the mid-2000s, when a reassessment of its abundance found its numbers had fallen by more than half in the preceding 20 years. Their steep decline is linked to the loss of wetland breeding areas as growing human populations sought out new farmland and pastures for cattle. Elsewhere wetlands were affected by drought or the construction of dams, or polluted by pesticide run-off. Jeconious Musingwire, an environmental scientist with Uganda’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), says Muhebwa’s findings matched a massive loss of crane habitat across the country. Uganda has lost over 40% of its wetlands since 1994, according to the ministry of water and environment. “Loss and degradation of wetlands, climate change and altering of landscapes for human settlement destroyed habitats for their breeding,” said Musingwire. Population growth also mean cranes are living closer to settlements, facing more frequent disturbances and more vulnerable to hunting. In some places, cranes are targeted because the birds can damage crops such as young maize. Bashir Hangi, spokesperson for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), says poaching for illegal wildlife trade, is also an important factor in Uganda. “Crested crane is one the birds that people do sell at the international level. For instance last year we arrested people with three of them,” he told Mongabay. Grey crowned cranes are in demand as domestic birds in Asia and the Middle East. Within Uganda, they are also sought after for traditional medicine. “They had disappeared because farmers destroyed the wetland,” said Vincent Namara, “but when they were chased away from it, cranes came back.” For the past 20 years, Namara has been harvesting grass from the Rucece wetland to sell as mulch to farmers in the southwestern district of Mbarara. All wetlands in Uganda are protected by government, although people often illegally occupy them, draining portions to make way for gardens, farms and settlements. Rucece is part of 202 hectares (500 acres) of wetlands restored by NEMA in this part of the country. The authority evicted encroachers and left the wetlands to regenerate. NEMA has also encouraged farmers to plant millions of calliandra trees (Calliandra calothyrsus) on their own land. Musingwire explains that these trees help farmland retain water, enrich the soil, and provide fodder, reducing pressure on wetlands.