Watching over our cranes

By Garth Johnstone

Daniel Dolpire, from Bosch Hoek, Balgowan, has produced a remarkable book of photographs about South Africa’s cranes, The Sentinels – Cranes of South Africa.

With research and writing assistance from Durban ornithologist David Allan, he has rounded off an epic five-year quest to capture the essence and story of these iconic birds with a glossy, spectacular book packed with dramatic, clever pictures.

The Sentinels, which was released in October, is more than an attractive coffee-table book. It delves into the important challenges and conservation initiatives undertaken to protect South Africa’s three cranes, of which the Wattled Crane is critically endangered. Only a maximum of 313 were counted countrywide last year.

Daniel Dolpire with one of the early hides used during photography.

The book is dedicated to conservationist Bill Barnes, a great sentinel, or protector, of KZN wildlife who was instrumental in founding a 450ha grassland and wetland reserve in the Nottingham Road area.

After Daniel completed a successful business career, he turned his hand to wildlife photography and, in 2013, with inspiration from colleague David Oosthuizen, The Sentinels quest got under way.

Crane Foundation

This passion project has taken Daniel far and wide, with a great amount of work done in Karkloof, the Nottingham Road area, Hlatikulu Sanctuary near Giant’s Castle, Witsand and the De Hoop Reserve in the Overberg, Greyton and Caledon in the Swartberg, the Eastern Cape, New Hanover, Richmond and De Aar in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, the Karoo and even Kenya’s famous Masai Mara reserve.

He worked closely with colleagues from the KZN Crane Foundation, which pours a great deal of resources and ingenuity into the conservation of these elegant, often secretive animals in the Midlands, a particular stronghold of theirs. The foundation’s Jon Bates is credited as a contributor to the book.

Daniel identified with the beauty of the reclusive cranes, the importance of highlighting the challenges they face and documenting their existence.

Daniel photographed a pair of nesting Wattled Cranes in Karkloof. Wattled Cranes are notoriously wary at the nest, but this pair was breeding on a private farm and thus fairly tolerant of humans. Daniel was able to habituate them even further and they eventually allowed him into the secrets of their private life. Pictures by Daniel Dolpire

In the excellent text by Allan, the character and habitat of each of the three (there are 15 types of crane worldwide) is discussed, from our national bird, the courtly Blue Crane, which has rebounded to some extent in the Cape, to the ornate Grey Crowned Crane and Wattled Crane, which are so important to the KZN Midlands and whose habitats tend to overlap.

Maintain wetlands

The importance of maintaining our local wetlands, which are of such strategic value, is also highlighted.

Some of the images picture mothers standing over eggs, the new generation emerging, tottering on unsteady feet, rare images of flocks of Wattled Cranes settling on farm land, Crowned Cranes with a flash of colour in flight and haunting images of Blue Cranes in Riebeek Kasteel, in the Western Cape.

This book, produced in collaboration with HPH Publishing, includes a foreword by George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. He writes: “Daniel’s remarkable images are a monumental testimony to the value of cranes to our aesthetic. It has been said there is nothing a crane does that is not graceful.”

The rare sight of a flock of Wattled Cranes landing on a Midlands property.

The author acknowledges backing and sponsorship from the likes of the N3TC (N3 Toll Concession), KZNCF, Endangered Wildlife Trust, BirdLife South Africa and the International Crane Foundation. He also makes special mention of the time and support offered by a number of family trusts and local families, such as the Torr, Bates, Barnes and Brown families.

And why did it take five years to capture these pictures and finalise the product?

Daniel explains that, other than the absolute passion for perfection which drove the project, conditions could be extremely tricky and dogged patience was required in many instances.

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First among the challenges, was that the birds do not like humans coming close to them and often retreat, eventually necessitating construction of hides and elaborate camouflaging.

Then there is the fact that the light is best in the early morning or afternoon, but the birds tend to fly off from the roost before sunrise and only return after sunset. Other birds (13 types counted on one occasion) often intruded upon the scene, interfering with what would have been beautifully composed pictures.

Geographically, there was a great deal of travelling required to get the job done right.

Hard graft

But, he concedes in the book, eventually the rewards of patience are a deeper understanding of the birds.

And, he notes wryly, the Japanese photographer, Tsuneo Hayashida, fell under the spell of the Red-crowned crane in 1962 and spent the next 20 years taking pictures before he published his famous book, The Japanese Crane, Bird of Happiness.

So five years of hard graft to capture this country’s sentinels was not bad going at all.

*Publisher: HPH Publishing;
*Price: R790; Size: 311 x 266mm; ISBN: 978-0-639-94733-4