DNA testing to protect cranes


Rhino horn, elephant tusks, abalone and pangolin scales frequently feature in news about the illegal wildlife trade, but South Africa’s national bird has also fallen victim to this crime. While the crane does not receive as much attention, this vulnerable species is under threat too. A loophole in the legal system has increased the opportunity for illegal trade operators, but it is hoped the implementation of DNA parenting testing will make illegal trade in this sentinel species a thing of the past.

You require a valid permit to trade in cranes and keep them in captivity, says Tanya Smith, Southern Africa regional manager for the African Crane Conservation Programme through the Endangered Wildlife Trust partnership. Devious perpetrators, however, found a way around it.

“They would claim chicks are captive bred to obtain the permit to sell them, while they were actually captured from the wild and placed with legally bred adults. The chicks are then sold to other traders and breeders,” she says. “They essentially legalise illegal birds through the system.”


Blue cranes dancing in the Western Cape. Photo: David Gaglio

It is not easy to catch these perpetrators. “There is a lack of capacity within government agencies, and as an NGO we don’t have the legal mandate to catch those involved,” Smith explains. “Wildlife trade is a massive problem across the board, but most resources go towards species such as rhino and abalone,” she adds.
Smith says legislation is being strengthened to curb illegal trade. Gauteng and Limpopo’s Nature Conservation Departments are the first in South Africa to request DNA parentage testing before approving
a permit. This will prove the parents of the chicks are really the parents, and that chicks have not been harvested from the wild.

Another way to prevent illegal trade is to impose stronger sentencing on those caught without permits. “We

Grey-crowned cranes foraging. Photo: Xanthe Holmes

are now getting the Prosecuting Authority to follow through on prosecutions,” Smith says. In the past there was no successful sentencing for crane trade, only a few guilty pleas. A case in 2017 saw the guilty party receive a suspended sentence of five years.

In a more recent case still under investigation, someone dumped a box containing 10 blue crane chicks in a conservancy in Bloemfontein, probably to avoid arrest at a roadblock. The chicks were still young and not yet able to fly.

Smith says the harvesting of chicks from the wild can have a devastating effect on the blue crane population in South Africa. These birds rely on slow recruitment as they are long-lived – they can live for 30–40 years in the wild.

“Only 36% of chicks make it through the first year of their lives, as they spend the first four months on the ground exposed to predators,” she says. “Add to that the man-made cause of ‘death’ when chicks are captured and removed from their parents.” Other threats include fences, power lines, predatory birds and the loss of habitat for breeding.

The biggest populations of blue crane occur in the Central Karoo and in the Overberg and Swartland of the Western Cape. The Western Cape population accounts for about 50% of South Africa’s crane numbers. Smith says a very small population occurs in Namibia, but South Africa is the world’s crane stronghold. “We have a responsibility to protect them as part of our natural heritage.”

Written by René de Klerk.  

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