Rwanda’s uplifting regal bird
The regal grey crowned crane is a fragile symbol of the struggle to preserve the wildlife of Central Africa in the face of soaring human pressures. For Rwandan vet and conservationist Olivier Nsengimana, it has become the flagship of a home-grown campaign to fire young Rwandans with a passion to cherish and protect the natural wonders of their homeland.
Though his career as a conservationist began working to save imperilled mountain gorillas, he soon noticed that many grey crowned cranes were being kept in captivity, many as living ornaments in the private gardens of the affluent, a dwindling emblem for long life and wealth. As a result, the birds were being poached from the wild by struggling villagers for their value in the vast illicit pet trade. In the process, thousands were injured or died, and the population shrank by 80 per cent globally.
“The other big threat that has caused the decline in cranes is habitat loss,” Nsengimana explains. “Our country has a high human population density and there is a huge pressure on natural resources, especially wetlands, on which cranes rely for survival. So many wetlands are being transformed into farmland and the cranes lose suitable habitat for breeding and food.”
Deep down inside, Rwandans love grey crowned cranes. They still have that love. They want them because they are beautiful.
He realized the captive birds were a precious resource to breed up their numbers again. He began to keep track of birds held in captivity – but how could he, a simple village lad, tell the rich and powerful they should return their birds to the wild?
“I realized there is a weapon, a very strong weapon, that I could use. Deep down inside, Rwandans love cranes. They still have that love. They want them because they are beautiful.” Inspired by his country’s love of this famous bird, and with encouragement from his 2014 Rolex Award for Enterprise, he was able to push ahead with his project of ensuring the crane’s salvation, be empowered to dream big and undertake ambitious endeavours.
One of his first actions was a national TV and radio campaign explaining that this love of cranes was part of the very reason they were in danger – something people were not aware of. Crane owners began approaching Nsengimana and asking “What can we do?”. They began to offer their birds for re-wilding.
With support from the Rwandan government, Nsengimana and his team established a database of all the cranes held in captivity throughout the country. They set up a purpose-built rehabilitation facility at Akagera National Park where the cranes could re-learn behaviours they needed in the wild and re-grow feathers that had been cut in captivity to prevent them from flying away. The facility had no roof so, when they were ready, the cranes could fly away and enjoy the freedom of the park.
Nsengimana later founded a nature reserve and sanctuary in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to provide a permanent home for cranes that were too sick or disabled to survive in the wild after a life in captivity.
The project, with its symbolic bird, generated admiration and enthusiasm far and wide. Today, there are no healthy grey crowned cranes held in captivity in the whole of Rwanda – and the illicit trade that led to their poaching has largely been suppressed.
The success of the education campaigns led to a widening array of programmes, reaching beyond the city and into the villages and forest communities, using conservation to create jobs such as marsh rangers and conservation champions. Realizing that rural children sometimes take eggs from wild birds, they took the campaign into schools, teaching youngsters how to protect cranes and their habitat.
The sanctuary is a place where people can come, be inspired and learn about our work and the consequences of keeping animals in captivity.
The sanctuary has also proved highly popular, with visitors delighting in seeing the cranes close-up. “It is a place where people can come, be inspired and learn about our work, learn about the consequences of keeping animals in captivity,” says Nsengimana.
Since 2017, his team has run annual censuses of grey crowned cranes in Rwanda, which have established that the number of birds nearly doubled in just four years – from 487 to 881, figures that have given great heart and hope to those working to protect them.
The grey crowned crane’s native range extends from East Africa to Southern Africa and, overall, the birds are endangered, their population still in decline. Nsengimana’s surveys have established that cranes, ignoring human boundaries, travel freely between his country and its close neighbours – Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. He is trying to understand more about the movement patterns of cranes and their habitat preferences.
“We have preliminary results and these show that we need to work together. Success in Rwanda is nothing without working with Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi,” he cautions, pointing out that crane groups in Uganda and elsewhere have perhaps been working longer than he has. The work is now in hand to build cross-border partnerships with conservation groups in the other countries, to insure the wider crane population.
In such ways, from a few ornamental pet birds, Nsengimana’s vision of the majestic cranes living wild, wide and free has caught fire not only in his homeland, but is now reaching across its borders to other peoples – and the crane is slowly metamorphosing into a symbol of African renewal.
Nsengimana and his colleagues are now broadening their conservation work to include other species, including bats, shoe-billed storks, sitatunga antelopes and grey parrots, as well as habitat restoration.
The conservationist draws a quiet satisfaction that the rescue and replenishment of the grey crowned crane are a Rwandan project, inspired and carried out by local people – unlike many African conservation efforts that tend to be driven by non-governmental bodies in far-off countries. Nsengimana points out that his goals and cross-border plans are perfectly in harmony with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative to protect the planet and all its diversity. He sees that, ultimately, we must all join hands.
“It is a huge strength when we pull together in our efforts to save our planet. It is not going to be a one-person mission, it is going to be everyone’s mission to save our species, our whole planet.”