"All over the world cranes are enmeshed and embedded in culture," says Lindy Rodwell, whose family instilled a love of wildlife in her from an early age. "They are symbols of longevity, they are symbols of lifelong fidelity, and they are symbols of royalty and power." It is not hard to see why. At up to 1.7m tall, these regal and elegant birds mate for life, with both parents sharing the incubation of eggs and the rearing of the young. All 15 species worldwide practise an intricate courtship dance, bowing and leaping into the air as they whirl around one another. The male presents the female with gifts — pieces of vegetation. The ceremony ends with a clamorous "unison" call, announcing their partnership.
For Rodwell, who recalls as a child hearing the blue cranes’ haunting call as they flew high above her, cranes embody something uniquely South African. In fact, the blue crane (Anthropoides paradiseus) is her country’s national bird. Both the blue crane and the wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus), are critically endangered within South Africa. For Rodwell, the idea that either should one day disappear is almost inconceivable.
Thanks to her past efforts, the future for both these species is beginning to look more secure within South Africa. But beyond South Africa’s borders, wattled cranes range across 10 countries: Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rodwell, in partnership with the International Crane Foundation, is building an ambitious network of conservationists to ensure that these birds are protected not only in her native country, but across Africa. For this Lindy Rodwell has been selected as a Rolex Laureate.
Projects and people are already in place in Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Over the next four years, Rodwell hopes to strengthen that network, identifying, training and providing resources for individuals in 11 countries whose combined efforts will help protect the little-studied wattled cranes, and the wetlands these birds frequent.
Rodwell insists that entire wetland systems utilised by the cranes is to be protected. For example, the Zambezi River system and its associated floodplains extend across four countries. The cranes move between these wetland areas, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart, with no regard for political boundaries. If one part of the river system or floodplain is damaged or degraded, it will affect another part of the system downstream, with the result that the cranes may disappear. For her, the wattled crane is important not only in itself, but also as an emblem of the initiative to preserve ecosystems on which thousands of people and hundreds of species depend.
Wattled cranes are important scientifically — as a litmus test of the state of wetlands under threat from agriculture, the construction of dams and drainage schemes. "Cranes are the flagship species for an ecosystem on which we are entirely dependent," says Rodwell. "South Africa is a semi-arid country, and where we’ve destroyed wetlands, we’ve got a major problem with water supply. So you’ve got a direct link between the health of the birds, the survival and sustainability of these wetlands and the health of the people."
Rodwell became involved with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), South Africa’s most prominent non-government conservation body, in 1991. Three years later, she helped found the South African Crane Working Group (SACWG) under the auspices of the EWT. Over the past decade she has been involved in every aspect of crane conservation in South Africa, from captive breeding to satellite tracking.
Within her own country, Rodwell has started projects aimed at creating awareness among farm workers and landowners whose conservation efforts are recognised with a "Crane Custodian" board placed on farm gates. Many landowners now report sightings of the birds, thus assisting the monitoring of cranes.
"In 10 years, Lindy Rodwell achieved what the formal South African government conservation agencies, with larger budgets and greater resources, were unable to do: to make crane conservation a people’s issue and motivate local communities to be responsible for their cranes," says the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s president, Dr John Ledger.
At the end of 2000, she handed over the coordination of the South African Crane Working Group to two colleagues in order to devote her time to her new brainchild within the same network — the cross-border African project. While pushing back the geographical boundaries of that project, she has narrowed the focus of her efforts to the wattled crane. The species is on the Red Data List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as critically endangered in South Africa and endangered in Africa. The biggest and most wetland-dependent of Africa’s cranes, it is sensitive to the least alteration of its habitat. It is highly territorial, easily disturbed and raises only one chick per breeding attempt.
In October 2001, in partnership with the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and with the help of local associations of amateur and professional pilots who donated their flying time, Rodwell and her colleagues oversaw the first-ever coordinated aerial surveys of wattled crane populations in southern Africa. The news was bad — whereas historical guesstimates had put numbers at between 13,000 and 15,000, her team’s estimate was closer to half that number. To check the figures and gain more knowledge of the species, further surveys will be undertaken.
In South Africa itself, Rodwell’s approach and the network of skills she has brought together have proved successful. Here wetlands are small and scattered, and people live on the edges, using them for winter grazing, water, fishing and the collection of reeds for thatching or basket making. Rodwell’s fieldworkers are promoting these wetland crafts, in which people use sedges and bullrushes to weave baskets, mats — even conference bags — for sale.
In other countries, however, the wetlands take the form of vast floodplains such as the Zambezi Delta in Mozambique, which has been dramatically altered over the past 28 years due to reduced flooding caused by the Cahora Basa dam built on the Zambezi River. Researcher and team member Carlos Bento regularly travels 60 km on foot into the delta where, living off lizards, fish and the occasional leftovers of a lion kill, he studies the relationship between its flooding patterns and the wattled crane’s breeding habits.
According to Rodwell, Bento is just one of the many extraordinary people in central and southern Africa who, through sheer determination, have risen above civil war, poverty, lack of resources and formal education to champion the cause of crane and wetland conservation. She is ensuring that these people meet and share their experiences. "It is so important to build relationships, to let people sit around the fire at night and talk and develop the feeling that this is an African team," she stresses.
Thought and Determination
"Working in Africa has not been an easy walk for Lindy or the programme," says Kerryn Morrison, SACWG’s National Operations Manager. "Every step has had its stumbling blocks, from political instability, to a lack of adequate communication channels, to hours and days spent trying to get through the logistical nightmares of working in developing countries. However, Rodwell faces each stumbling block with careful thought and determination, and manages each time to overcome it."
Ultimately, Rodwell’s aim is to "create a creature that will move forward on its own without me... if possible", she says. The Rolex Laureate seems certain to reach her goal. Dr George Archibald, founder of the International Crane Federation and a long-standing source of inspiration for Rodwell, is confident she will succeed: "Every project Lindy touches becomes a golden project," he says. She has many achievements behind her to prove this. In 1989, for instance, she set up her own ceramics business — Lindy Ceramics and Fabrics — which she sold eight years later for a profit. Even while running a successful company, Rodwell managed to devote much of her time to her beloved cranes. As well as bringing her an income, the business also satisfied another of her passions — sculpture and pottery. Each summer she spends a couple of weeks in Nature’s Valley, a "haven" on the Tsitsikamma coast, where she works on pieces in clay or bronze inspired by nature and dreams of owning her own studio.
A different league
Rodwell is unlikely, however, to abandon crane conservation. For now she has her hands full capitalising on the possibilities that the Rolex Award has opened up for her. Her philosophy is to strengthen the existing, in-country programmes with better resources and training, rather than try to start up new programmes and spread the money too thinly. But, Rodwell says, "apart from the funding, the kind of profile and awareness that an award like this creates is invaluable. Funding begets funding."
The time is ripe, she says, to tap into international interest in Africa, and to foster an image of South Africa as positive and outward-looking. Lindy Rodwell believes the Rolex Award will make a big difference for her project. "It just takes the programme into an entirely different league, almost overnight," she says.
Published in 2002