Hlatikulu Crane Sanctuary

On the second day of our stay at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in late July we drove out to Entabeni to see the Hlatikulu Crane Sanctuary.

This sanctuary has a Crane Rehabilitation Centre which is positioned adjacent to a large wetland feeding a few dams. It is located about 12 kilometres from Kamberg along the Giant’s Castle road. The next image shows a panorama of the dam adjacent to the Crane Rehabilitation Centre. The surrounding area is very beautiful, nestled under the Central Drakensberg mountains.


When you least expect it, you may also find some natural treasures – African Clawless Otters having great fun, oblivious of the winter water temperatures. These were the best images I could get because they were right in the middle of the dam.  I was rather hoping that they would be like Gavin Maxwell’s Otters in ‘Ring of Bright Water’ and be very inquisitive and come over to investigate this photographer, but no such luck.

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Unbeknown to us the Crane Sanctuary visits during the weekend are by appointment. Despite being closed to the public, a very cordial staff member, Jeffrey, showed us around the Crane pens giving us some background to their rehabilitation efforts.

Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond to it. 

~ Charles R Swindall

The drastic decline in the numbers of the three species of Cranes in South Africa led to the establishment of the South African Crane Working Group (SACWG), which is a national body aimed at co-ordinating Crane conservation efforts in South Africa. A National Crane Habitat and Action Plan acts as a guideline for Crane conservation. The group is made up of a network of regional and national Crane conservation projects and working groups and is active in all 10 key Crane regions in South Africa. The Hlatikulu Sanctuary is part of the network of conservation working groups focused on conserving SA’s three types of Cranes.

The three species of Crane found in South Africa are the Wattled Crane (Critically Endangered), the Grey Crowned Crane (Vulnerable) and our national bird, the Blue Crane (Vulnerable).

 According to the KZN Crane Foundation, Cranes are the ambassadors for two of South Africa’s most important ecosystems – the wetlands and grasslands that make up our water catchment areas. Today, only 2% of South Africa’s grasslands are under formal protection and over 50% of the country’s wetlands have been lost through human activity – mining, forestry, crop farming, overgrazing, draining, industrial development and urbanisation.

Do what you can , with what you have, where you are. 

~ Theodore Roosevelt

South Africa is world-renowned for its rich biodiversity. The KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation (KZNCF) is one of a number of conservation groups working to raise public awareness about Cranes and the need to conserve these unique species which signals the health of the ecosystems upon which they and human communities so critically depend.

 What makes Cranes so special?

  • Cranes have been around since the Eocene, which ended 34 million years ago. They are among the world’s oldest living birds and one of the planet’s most successful life-forms, having outlasted millions of species (99 percent of species that ever existed are now extinct). In all the human cultures that experience the birds, they are revered. Source: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/search/?q=cranes
  • They are beautiful, elegant, exotic looking large birds. Their stunning colouring and long legs and necks give them elegant lines. Cranes vary in height from the Grey-crowned at three foot to the Wattled at six foot.
  • Their bugling calls are booming and not especially musical but can be heard over long distances. Their calls are amplified and resonated within specialised long and often convoluted trachea according to Trevor Carnaby’s “Beat about the Bush – birds”. All species are territorial when breeding so long distance calls probably help reduce conflict and alert prospective partners.
  • They dance as part of the courting and recognition rituals between males and females.
  • Demoiselle Cranes are found in North Africa but not is SA. These amazing birds migrate over the Himalayas each year – a phenomenal physical feat. Have a look at the short video via this link: http://bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Demoiselle_Crane#p00379my
  • Their breeding and survival success are good indicators of the health of our grasslands and wetlands.
  • The Grey-crowned Crane is the only one of the SA Cranes with a longer hind toe which allows it to perch in trees. The other two species are confined to their terrestrial perches.
  • All three Cranes are good fliers and migrate significant distances depending on the season.
  • The Grey-crowned and Wattled Cranes inhabit  a large area extending to the southern-central parts of Africa. We saw many Grey-crowned Cranes in Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater

The Grey Crowned Crane is the smallest of the three Cranes found in South Africa, but in my opinion is the most exotically dressed.

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Life is one big canvas; throw all the paint on it you can. 

~ Danny Kaye

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Blue Cranes

There are around seven or eight Blue Cranes at the Hlatikulu centre. The Blue Crane is also referred to as the Stanley Crane or Paradise Crane. It is a large very elegant bird. According to the Bluecrane.org.za website,  Blue Cranes are the most numerous of the three species in South Africa. They are endemic to SA with about 99% of the estimated 21,000 to 23,000 birds found in SA and a small group is resident in Etosha. The Blue Crane was classified as vulnerable by the International Union of Conservation (IUCN) in 2003.

  • National Bird of South Africa.
  • One of only 2 cranes without red on the face (the other is the Demoiselle Crane).
  • Besides the Demoiselle Crane, independent of wetlands, but need water.
  • Near endemic to South Africa, with a small population in Namibia of less than 35 birds.
  • Primary threats: Powerlines, habitat loss, poisoning.
    Source:Endangered Wildlife Trust-African Crane Conservation Programme.

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The previous image was the best I could get through the wire mesh fence around the Crane pen. It was interesting to see the Blue Crane’s head become almost Cobra-like when it was disturbed.

Grey-crowned Cranes

  • Endangered across Africa.
  • Vulnerable in South Africa.
  • Can perch due to their long hind toe.
  • Fastest declining crane species in the world.
  • The most ancient of the cranes.
  • National bird of Uganda.
  • South Africa the only country with a stable population.
  • Biggest population in Kenya and Uganda.
  • Primary threats: illegal trade, habitat loss, direct persecution as a result of crop damage and powerline collisions and electrocutions.
Source:Endangered Wildlife Trust-African Crane Conservation Programme

The International Crane Foundation estimates the Grey-crowned Crane population at 30,000 (South African 12,000, East African 18,000). The population has declined 50-79% across most of the species range over the last 45 years (excluding South Africa, where the population has remained stable).

There is also a Black-crowned Crane which looks similar but for black body feathers. The head colouring looks similar. We do not get the Black-crowned Crane in SA, they are only found in west and north Central Africa from Nigeria to the Sudan.

You were born an original.  Don’t die a copy. 

~ John Mason

The Grey-crowned Crane images in this post are of Boston. The story goes that Boston was found by a lady in Boston in KwaZulu Natal as a small chick and brought to the Hlatikulu Sanctuary to be reared, hence his name. Boston is free but firmly imprinted on humans. He will therefore come right up to you and follow you around like a dog. This made getting close up shots with backgrounds tricky as he kept coming right up to me wanting to peck at my camera’s lens. Being really inquisitive he eventually flew on top of our 4×4 and this gave me the perfect opportunity to get the close-ups with clear backgrounds – thanks Boston!!

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Wattled Cranes

The Wattled Crane occurs in eleven sub-Saharan countries in Africa, including an isolated population in the highlands of Ethiopia. More than half of the world’s Wattled Cranes occur in Zambia. The single largest concentration occurs in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wattled Cranes are thought to have historically ranged over a much larger area including coastal West Africa. There is a total population of around 8,000 but is in a declining trend.

Wattled Cranes are South Africa’s most endangered crane species, with an estimated 245 to 260 individuals remaining in the wild in South Africa.  Approximately 90% of the country’s population of Wattled Cranes are located in KwaZulu-Natal, with the vast majority of the 80 known breeding pairs found in the KZN midlands and Drakensberg.  A small number of pairs are found in the Highveld grasslands of Mpumalanga and the Drakensberg of the Eastern Cape.  These birds are highly dependent on wetlands for breeding and foraging They breed in winter which limits the types of wetlands they depend on for breeding.  These birds are usually very sensitive to disturbance and land use changes. Source: www.bateleurs.co.za

Currently Red Data listed as Vulnerable, Wattled Cranes were once widely spread across Africa, but now occur in a restricted range with only approximately 7,000 individuals remaining in the wild. Some of the greatest losses of Wattled Cranes have occurred in South Africa where a 35% decline in population size over just two decades left the population critically endangered.

  • Critically Endangered in South Africa.
  • Vulnerable status in Africa.
  • Most specialised of Africa’s Cranes, needing good quality wetlands.
  • The majority of the population found in the large floodplains in central Southern Africa.
  • Primary threats: habitat loss and hydroelectric dams.
Source:Endangered Wildlife Trust-African Crane Conservation Programme

I could not get decent images of the Blue and Wattled Cranes through the fence around their pens so I will have to find out where and when I can get shots of them in the wild – I can feel another trip coming on!!!

After having a look around the centre and spending some time with Boston, we drove down to one of the dams to have coffee and a bun. The next image was taken once we stopped to have our coffee. The reflection on the water showed the stillness and beauty around the dam.

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“If you see a crane flying, it may be drawing your eyes to the heavens, lifting your spirits, and inspiring you to trust in the universe. If you see it standing, it may be advising vigilance and alertness”.
– Unknown
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at the inter-connectedness and then let it be.

Have fun,


One thought on “Hlatikulu Crane Sanctuary

  1. Mike. A very informative and educational piece with very good portraits of these stunning subjects. Cranes are certainly some of the most beautiful and majestic birds.

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