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Crowned Crane: The sad story of Nigeria’s ‘national’ bird

The   crane is a regal bird ,but it is doing poorly in Nigeria, given the fact  of ‘over hunting’, hunger for ‘bushmeat’ ,and the effect  of dams, which distort its habitat, pushing its population to the brink, and triggering questions as to how national is this ‘national bird’.

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Costly bird  

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‘A live crowned crane costs one hundred and fifty thousand naira’, says Bashiru Sani, Chairman, Bird Sellers Association, Abuja, who informs me that he has not set eyes on the bird for the past two years. He sits by a junction close to the National Mosque, Abuja where he and a group of young men sell live birds in cages, and there is a monkey too .They watch the passing cars as eagerly as they guard their birds, and there is the hope that a door may open and an occupant express interest in a bird. The young men look and they wait. Most of the birds are in cages, and Sani adds that the wildlife trade is good business in the federal capital. This is also true of Ibadan where late last year, this reporter saw several   shrunken baby elephant heads with a single one selling for fifty thousand Naira .Sani’s clients include Nigerians as well as foreigners, he points out emphasizing that two  Nigerian Eagles sell for fifty thousand Naira, while the American Eagle is sold for three hundred thousand Naira. The Hadejia -Nguru wetlands in Jigawa and Yobe  states  once played host to the  black crowned crane, which has been referred to as  Nigeria’s national bird, and ‘ It’s crown of stiff, golden feathers atop the head’ make it beautiful and unique .In Hadejia, it is locally known as ‘Borin Tunke,’Daily Trust Saturday is told, and the bird  seems to have been the choice of some if they wished to give a gift to royalty in the north, especially  as a gift to the King (Emir) .It is still not very clear which government declared the crowned crane as Nigeria’s  preeminent bird. But it was pointed out that the crowned crane was only proposed as a national bird about the year 1985, but that the position was actually later given to the Eagle which features on our coat of arms. However, why there are still many references to the crowned crane as Nigeria’s national bird on the internet, is something of a puzzle. The Eagle too, if it is our national bird, has suffered neglect, and is today classified as critically endangered. If a bird is declared a national bird, it should receive special attention from the state. Both the eagle and the crowned crane are endangered, on account of a variety of reasons which are largely similar for both.

Coat of Arms

This leads one to take a second look at our coat of arms, of which one of its parts, the eagle as a bird in Nigeria, is endangered and not very visible today. It may then be right to say that the coat of arms as a symbol is weak, because one of its members, famous for its strength, keen vision and ability to soar, is endangered. Reviving Nigeria’s population of Eagles, is also part of the delicate process of rebuilding Nigeria. Mr. Sola Faboya, an Adherent of The Grail Message, comments "Nigeria needs strength, versatility, and an ability to fly to high levels which should be the aspiration of any human community. Any human being should  aspire to rise to the highest, just as the eagle would soar aloft in the air." Then the other half of the coat of arms, the horse, is an animal facing serious threat, because it is being killed in great numbers   and eaten as a delicacy every day, in many parts of Nigeria.  One half of the coat of arms, the horse, is being decimated every day in Nigeria.

National bird?

Isa Suleiman, an Ornithologist with the Kano University of science and Technology, Wudil, comments “If a bird is a national bird, this entails that in addition to other normal routine protection it enjoys, the country has an extra concern on the species. We have failed in terms of the extra concern on the species, since we can find it being sold by the roadside.” He describes the crowned crane in the following words “It used to be very popular in the north east, and it’s a semi-arid bird dominating fresh water flood plains, not marshy ocean water, which is salty.” Bashir Garba, of the Black Crowned Crane Coordinating Centre, Kano, in an article, argues “In the 1960’s and 1970’s cranes were sighted frequently, mostly around grasslands, rice fields ,and groundnut farms in our local villages, but now they are rarely seen in their former ranges. Where sightings once were made in their thousands, now hardly a pair can be sighted.”

The crowned crane which inhabits the vast tract of land between Senegal and Chad , featured on  stamps issued in Nigeria at one time ,and this confirms that the bird had a pride of place in the public consciousness . An online check by this reporter revealed postage stamps of 1966 proudly bearing the head of the blue crowned crane. Aminu Beli, Manager, National Childrens Park & Zoo, Abuja, tells Daily Trust Saturday, that in 1992 an international conference on the black crowned crane, held at the Bagauda Lake Hotel, Kano attended by participants from Senegal, Sudan, Mali and many other countries.

‘Critically endangered’

But  the  elegant bird  with ‘dark slaty-grey to black plumage’, cannot be found in places that were  its favourite nesting grounds, most notably the 320 kilometer  long  Baturiya bird sanctuary ,within the Hadejia -Nguru wetlands .Fifty thousand migratory birds converge on Baturiya annually ,made up of 370 species of birds, and there are more than one hundred water bodies in the locality . As mentioned earlier, it is now a critically endangered bird, and a ‘relic population’ of the species can be found in Cameroon .Anyone who wishes to see the crowned crane flourishing in a natural environment, should travel to Banki and cross into Cameroon, or perhaps head into Chad ,or Niger republic .The  Hadejia -Nguru wetlands  may not be of much use in the search for the crane .You will meet farmers, fishermen and many who saw the bird many years ago, but you won’t see the bird. It would seem  that this bird, has by reason of neglect , ‘overhunting ’within the wetlands, dam construction,  growth of typha grass ,and other factors ,become critically endangered. In parts of Nigeria, you may find a few cranes on sale by the roadside, and the Abuja National Childrens Park & Zoo has some. In addition, Suleiman informs me that both Makurdi and Maiduguri zoos have black cranes in their possession.

10 years ago

“I last saw cranes six years ago in the bush around my farm in the wetlands .Their numbers have fallen today,” says Datti Madamawa, a farmer who mentions that his village is located within the wetlands, and that the area has a number of islands .He explains the factors that led to the drop in numbers “The hunters set traps for them. They catch them and take to the market to sell. Then there are chemicals they apply on bushes along the regular path which the birds follow .They poison the birds, catch them and take to the market, and this resulted in the decline of the crane.” Abdullahi Ahamad works with the Komadugu Yobe Basin Wetland Development Initiatives (K.Y.B W.D.I.) an NGO active in Jigawa, Bauchi and Yobe states “I last saw the bird five years ago, but now if you go to the wetlands, you won’t even see one. Formerly, it was a place where the crowned crane was seen in great numbers. “On the reasons for the decline in the population of the bird   “When the crane lays an egg, the reptiles in the wetlands normally eat the eggs. Even the fishermen, if they see the eggs, they would take them away. Under these circumstances, the birds would become scarce.”Garba Ibrahim, a retired civil servant, speaks on the decline of the bird “In 1973 there was a serious drought when Yakubu Gowon was the head of state, and it affected the whole area. Rainfall ceased. We recovered and then there was the construction of the Tiga dam in Kano, which was later followed by the construction of the Bagauda dam. The river flow in the area reduced. This affected the wetlands, which in turn, affected all the birds. The number of people living in the area has increased, and this population affects not only the cranes, but the birds too, because people began to see wildlife as a source of food, as bushmeat as they call it .”Abbas Muhammad, another retired civil servant and resident of Hadejia, goes down memory lane “As population grows, there are more mouths to feed, and more lands to be allocated for agriculture. Of course, there is some hunting here and there. The natural habitat for these birds is affected by these environmental and climactic factors.” Ibrahim Muhammad is with the Nature Conservation department, Ministry of Environment, Jigawa state “In the last decade I have not seen even one in the area, and this is because of the problems in the wetland zone .For instance, there are the aquatic plants that dominate most of the water surface, and sixty percent of the wetlands is covered by typha grass. This type of bird prefers marshy grassland, and rice fields for feeding. Now, most of the water surface is covered by the typha grass. But before the coming of this typha grass, there was the obstruction of the free flow of water towards the wetland area, on account of the construction of dams along the river Hadejia, and this made the volume of water in the area to shrink.”

Like many other birds, taboos and beliefs  ring the crowned crane .For instance, as Garba captures in the paper referred to above, in one  Nigerian city, ‘the people feel it is unlucky for anyone to carry a crowned crane through their town.’ In some towns others feel that anyone who captures and eats a crane will soon start to behave like an insane person. In parts of the world cranes are signs of ‘good luck.’

 Cranes eat insects

Beli, who describes wildlife as encompassing “everything from the ant to the whale”, declares “This is an endangered bird. The crowned crane likes marshes and wetlands, and when we clear marshes and wetlands for purposes of construction of dams and other agricultural uses, their habitat reduces. The habitat has actually diminished, and the overuse of agrochemicals has actually reduced the population.” According to him “There are thirteen species of the crowned crane all over the world, but the one found in West Africa is the black crowned crane. In those days the numbers were good, and you will see them around the Hadejia -Nguru wetlands for now, the population has gone down and you see them only around a few places, maybe around Lake Chad.” He points out “The crowned crane solely depends on insects, and equally there are partridges and many other bird species that feed on insects. In fact they were the ones controlling agricultural pests in those days, without farmers using anything to control agricultural pests. But now the numbers are going down, and there is nobody to check the pests in the environment.” Beli draws attention to an important matter “The crowned cranes are not there, and even if they are there, the number has gone down. People look at them as if they are not doing anything in the environment, but they consume insects. When we lose all these animals and birds, one day we will not have pollinators of flowers. This is because there are some birds that assist in the pollination of flowers, and some insects are killed during the use of chemicals like honey bees and wasps. Very soon we will be in serious danger when we lose our insects and our birds, disrupting the Eco balance in the process. ” He also wonders how a bird that is endangered and not very visible today, can be regarded as a national bird. 

Revival

Ahamad thinks of the way forward “To revive 40 -50% of the crowned crane, government should come in and put staff to monitor the wetlands, so that hunters will be stopped from going after the crowned crane. When the birds live in peace, and there is no sound of gunshots, they will continue multiplying. “He stresses “The taking of eggs should be stopped. When it lays an egg and nobody picks it, the population of the crowned crane will multiply.” In a similar vein, Madamawa advises “the government should stop people from hunting these birds, and people should be employed to monitor the wetlands. The hunters are largely responsible for the decline in numbers.” Ibrahim opines “If people in government are serious, they will invite NGOs, and make the area an agency on its own, so that it will help develop the locality generally.” He argues that the abandoned Hadejia Valley irrigation Project, was a huge setback “This was a project initiated by Shagari in 1980/81, but up till now the project has not been completed. It is an irrigation project covering 25,000 hectares of land. The wetlands could support an amazing biodiversity. Birds come to winter in the Baturiya bird sanctuary every winter, and at certain times of the year.”

Muhammad advances several reasons that could help to revive the bird “There could be some intervention to restore, to some degree, their natural habitat, even if we don’t have them in great numbers we can see a few of them. Probably, their population can start growing, even if it does not match the previous situation. Government needs to prohibit interference in the area in terms of hunting, and in terms of agricultural activities, and so forth. Maybe it can restock the place, and it can be done with the help of development partners.”

Marshy environment

Dr. Tanko Dauda is of the Department of Biological sciences, federal University, Lokoja. His words “Dredging activities remove its habitat .It needs a marshy environment in order to flourish. When we dredge rivers, this affects its habitat. People want to keep the crowned crane for ornamentation in their houses, so its population has gone down. But the crowned crane itself is not very visible across the world.” To revive its numbers, he admonishes “Captive breeding is a way out. If a marshy environment is created, this will help it to flourish. Government needs to identify areas where we have some of the birds, and protect them in those areas. Also, restoration of destroyed, degraded environments will help to bring them back. Our laws need to be modified. There are a lot of hunting activities in the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands. Those recruited to work in conservation areas are likely to be bribed by hunters, except a small group who have passion for birds and animals.” Dauda thinks that Cameroon has a better attitude to wildlife “They are more serious about conservation than Nigeria. Anything relating to conservation in Cameroon is a very serious matter. In the aspect of birds, Cameroon is doing very well. It has a lot of NGOs that are into conservation, so they are everywhere. In Nigeria, most of the conservation activities are done by government, and most things done by government in Nigeria, is not taken seriously. Only few NGOs are into conservation in Nigeria, and they cannot cover all areas.”

Garba states “The survival of cranes rests on the welfare of wetlands. In Africa most people are unaware of the importance of wetlands in water conservation, water quality, and in fisheries. The greatest problem facing the survival of cranes is the belief that cranes and wetlands have no beneficial role in the welfare of humanity. Natural resources with no apparent monetary value are believed to be useless. But people cannot live on money alone; we need a healthy environment with clean air, fresh water ,and the beauty of nature.”

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