The recent turbulent political history of Rwanda has not allowed wildlife conservation to be at the forefront of the country’s agenda, but Olivier Nsengimana is determined to change that with his project to save the endangered grey crowned-crane.
Olivier Nsengimana graduated top of his class at veterinary school – after growing up in post-genocide Rwanda – and had his pick of government and lucrative industry positions. But his passion was saving Rwanda’s endangered animals. “As soon as I was out in the field, working with these animals, I thought, wow, this is me, conservation is what I was meant to do with my life.”
In Rwanda, the crane is a symbol of wealth and longevity. With a golden tufted crown and a flame-red spot on its neck, it is a desirable pet for Rwanda’s elite. Despite a ban by the Rwandan Government on killing, injuring, capturing or selling endangered species, locals poach the birds and sell them as cheaply as chickens. The result has been devastating for Rwanda’s only species of crane. Its population has fallen by 80 per cent over the past 45 years, causing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to raise the threat listing for the bird to “endangered” in 2012. While there are grey crowned-cranes in other countries, only 300–500 are thought to exist in the wild in Rwanda, mainly at Rugezi Marsh, a protected area in the north of the country.
Nsengimana will spend the next two years dividing his time between fieldwork with conservation organization Gorilla Doctors and trying to save the grey crowned-crane. The project’s primary goal is to reintroduce captive cranes to their natural Rwandan habitat. Nsengimana plans first to establish a national database of grey crowned-cranes in Rwanda, listing all those in captivity. A rehabilitation centre will be created in Akagera National Park, located in the north-east of the country. The centre will begin reintroductions to the wild, as well as promote breeding programmes.
Convincing members of Rwanda’s elite to give up their birds is a sensitive issue. Nsengimana plans to tackle the release of the illegally held birds through an amnesty programme. For support, he has reached out to the Rwanda Development Board – which is collaborating on the project – to encourage people to release their birds. “People are already coming forward to surrender their cranes,” he says.
Another major aim is to stop the birds being poached from the wild. Nsengimana knows that for conservation to work in a country where poverty is widespread, it must address the need for local people to make a living. As part of his awareness-raising programme, Nsengimana will run a national media campaign to educate people about how to pursue livelihoods without threatening endangered species. In the long run, finding ways to conserve the cranes’ habitat will help conserve Rwanda’s biodiversity by protecting other species that live in the marshes.
Nsengimana, who is aged 30, also has a long-term mission – to foster a younger generation of Rwandan conservationists. “I want to train young veterinarians to help with this project and take ownership of conservation projects, and, so far, the response has been extremely positive,” he says.
Many other African countries are struggling to balance protecting the environment with economic development, and Nsengimana hopes that this project will serve as a model for neighbouring countries.