A study conducted by Wetlands International and BirdLife Africa as part of the project ''Conservation of crowned crane in West Africa'' funded by the Zoological Society (NEZS) / Chester Zoo and Mava Foundation, revealed a very special relationship between the black crowned crane and the populations of Casamance (southern Senegal). It's a strong mystical link that promotes the survival of the crowned crane, a vulnerable species listed since 2010 on the red list of IUCN.
In the Casamance region of Senegal, never touch what populations consider to be their beautiful African bird with majestic gaits: the Black crowned crane. The species is seen there as supernatural and mystical. It is a sacred species. This sacredness dates back to very distant times. The study research on the ecology of the species and threats to its survival commissioned by Wetlands International and BirdLife Africa has enabled us to discover how the black crowned crane is important to the Casamance people.
It's 7 am in this winter morning. Mr. Idrissa Ndiaye (the who guided me and helped during the study) and I left the village of Baila. We have an appointment with some resource persons of villages located nearby mangroves and rice fields in the area. We have two cameras and a camcorder to carry out our mission.
We arrived at Baranlir village after kilometres of walk. It's not far from the village of Koussabel where we find the elders of the area. They were all seated under a palaver tree to escape the scorching heat on this winter day. After the usual introductions and explanations about the reasons for our coming and what our study is about, the elders welcomed us warmly and agreed to talk about the sacred ties binding their society with the Black crowned crane.
One of the elders reveals that the Black crowned crane "Nghaat" (in Diola language) has a mystical connection with some families of the Diola ethnic group. These are the Diedhiou and Bodian clan who are able to decipher it's behavior he said. Therefore, it's undone for anybody to disturb or capture Black crowned cranes in their habitat. He added that their massive presence in Casamance is a good sign. "The abundance of Black crowned cranes in the rice fields in early rainy season is the announcement of forthcoming abundant rainfall and therefore a good harvest for us" he says.
As a matter of fact, the black crowned crane's image is the symbol of an alliance of associations commonly called "Jamoral" in Diola country that is working to promote peace building in this southern part of Senegal, which is subject to a separatist rebellion for three decades.
However, the Black crowned crane is not always a good news carrier in Casamance. Some traditionnaly initiated people know how to decode their messages. And according to the popular belief, as long as the Black crowned crane remains in the rice fields and the mangrove, the future is bright. Otherwise, the Black crowned crane can bring bad news for the local community.
"When black crowned cranes fly over the village from one end to the other while, shouting, they announce the imminent disappearance (death) of a villager," said Mr. Diedhiou, member of the assembly of the Elders of Baranlir. The same belief and discourse was pronounced to us by elders of other villages like Baila and Koussabel that we visited later.
"We must not attend the parade of Black crowned crane because it brings misfortune and causes the death of the one who attended it; many people doubted this, but they experience the facts supporting this belief which is the source of observations for hundreds of years after someone attended a Black crowned crane's parade, "said bluntly one Goudiaby, a Philosopher and amateur ornithologist in the village of Baila.
Although local communities show great respect to it, the crane is a pest for rice cultivation. The bird is messy and spoils large quantities of rice ears in rice fields where it feeds. Still, Casamance people remain powerless before this scourge because of the sanctity of the bird. They only weapons to tackle the mess are songs and prayers in Diola language that respectfully beg the Black crowned cranes to leave. Meanwhile, human presence repels them from the rice fields.
Hence, rice producers are obliged to be present in their rice fields during the bird's feeding hours, especially before harvest rice.
Wetlands International and BirdLife through the project "Conservation of Black crowned crane in West Africa" funded by Zoological Society (NEZS) / Chester Zoo and Mava Foundation, wanted to have a reliable database for better conservation of the species and its habitats in the west African sub-region. The field findings of this survey are hopeful. The sanctity of the Black crowned crane in Casamance actually turns to be an asset for this protected species.
Both organizations are stepping up to the development and implementation of management plans as well as an improvement of the protection status of the Black crowned crane as recommended by the study.
Inna Sané & Pape Diomaye Thiaré