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A third pair of critically endangered wattled cranes in the recovery programme run by Johannesburg Zoo has laid an egg. This is a milestone, having taken more than five years to get there.

STAFF are keeping an excited vigil at Joburg Zoo's Conservation Farm: a fledgling wattled crane pair has laid an egg. The farm's Dawie van der Walt says that what makes the laying of the egg even more exciting is that the pair was puppet-reared at the Johannesburg Zoo.

"Without a doubt this is a huge success," adds Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo managing director Bulumko Nelana. "The couple is young individuals who were puppet-reared and in respect of this and their age we are very excited about their future prospects. It's been a huge effort to get them to this stage."

Joburg Zoo is the managing partner of the Wattled Crane Recovery Programme, set up to prevent the extinction of the species in South Africa by rearing birds under human care and releasing them back into the wild. The programme is run in co-operation with the South African Crane Working Group, the African Association of Zoos and Aquaria and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. It involves the collection of abandoned eggs from wild nesting sites. The eggs are then taken to the Joburg Zoo where they are placed in incubators. Once hatched, the chicks are hand-reared at the zoo.

According to Van der Walt, wattled cranes occasionally lay two eggs but only rear one chick, abandoning the other. This means that taking second eggs has no detrimental effect on the wild population. Given the critically small wild population, eggs collected from nesting areas are crucial for the genetic health of the captive population. At the zoo's hand-rearing facility, newly hatched chicks are reared in such a way that they develop appropriate social skills that enable them to recognise and interact with their own species when they are old enough to breed.

A crucial component of the human-rearing process is ensuring that the chicks understand that they are wattled cranes and not humans. This tried and tested protocol involves human foster parents dressing up in white coats, and wearing special hand puppets that resemble a wattled crane's head. They also make chirping sounds to mimic the call of an adult crane.

Critically endangered

The wattled crane is one of five critically endangered bird species, with fewer than 250 individuals left across South Africa. It is also the most threatened crane species on the African continent, numbering 10 000 birds at most. Threats to the survival of the wattled crane in the wild include the destruction of wetlands which are crucial for their breeding; agricultural threats from the draining of wetlands to provide grazing or arable land; and industrial threats as demands on water, which affect wetlands, increase.

More than 20 of the birds have been successfully reared to sub-adulthood since 2006 through Joburg Zoo's Wattled Crane Recovery Programme. Sub-adults pair off when they are between two and three years old and when they sexually mature at six to seven years, they join the captive breeding programme. Their offspring will eventually be released into the wild.

According to Van der Walt, two cranes were introduced about 10 months ago. The female is five-and-a-half years old and the male a year older.

"Wattled cranes are extremely difficult to breed," he points out. "Of the 18 wattled cranes on the farm, only two pairs have built a nest and laid eggs in the past. We will be monitoring the nest and are hoping the egg will hatch. They're a young couple and have built a decent nest; however, they only built the nest after the egg was already laid."

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