“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
Rwanda Travel & Conservation: Part 2
Saving Grey Crowned Cranes
The people of Rwanda have long regarded the grey crowned crane as a symbol of wealth and longevity. As a status symbol, these magnificent birds have historically been kept in private and hotel gardens. Unfortunately, illegal poaching feeding this practice in addition to habitat loss has led to a sharp decline in the population. In 2012 a mere 300-500 cranes remained in the wild. Poor nutrition and stressful environments have prevented them from breeding in captivity. Though poaching has been illegal, protecting the cranes was not a top priority. At least until a local wildlife veterinarian brought the plight of this iconic species to the forefront of conservation in the country.
In 2014 Dr. Olivier Nsengimana, Founder & Executive Director of Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, was working as a Gorilla Doctor protecting the critically endangered mountain gorillas until he made a bold decision. Nsengimana realized the large flocks of grey crowned cranes that he used to enjoy watching fly overhead as a child had disappeared. He decided to take matters into his own hands as he dreamed that once again they would return to the skies for future generations to observe and enjoy. Nsengimana began by working with the government to start an amnesty program to help register and recover cranes held in captivity. He secured a suitable quarantine facility to assess the health of each crane and determine their potential for release. He collaborated with Akagera National Park, located in the eastern province, to determine rehabilitation and release sites. Working with the local university, Nsengimana recruited interns to assist in the cause while simultaneously strengthening their skills and marketability.
I met Dr. Nsengimana in 2015 at The Columbus Zoo & Aquarium where I was working as the Hospital Manager of Animal Health/Veterinary Technician. At the time he was touring the States giving talks at several Zoos about his project working to save endangered grey crowned cranes in Rwanda. Nsengimana is a visionary and his talk moved and inspired all in attendance. He spent a week with our veterinary department and I took the opportunity to ask if I could contribute in some way. He expressed the need to train additional staff to perform laboratory tests on surrendered cranes during health assessments. Luckily, I fit the bill! With endless encouragement and support of my colleagues I applied for my first conservation grant. Successful, I made my first trip to Rwanda in 2016 and have been back two additional times thanks to another Columbus Zoo Conservation Grant and most recently significant funding from The Association of Zoos & Aquariums Conservation Grant Fund with part of the money coming from The Walt Disney Corporation along with a generous donation from the Leiden Foundation.
I have had the opportunity to witness first hand the outstanding and truly holistic work Olivier and his dedicated team at Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) perform. It is their dream to put an end to illegal poaching of grey crowned cranes in Rwanda and help the specie’s population recover. RWCA provides educational outreach to local schools, has established a team of marsh rangers, holds regular workshops for government officials, runs national media campaigns, and organizes youth conservation clubs who, along with community members, plant thousands of trees each year to help support their cause. They initiate alternative income revenues in communities such as pig farming. RWCA has released 156 cranes into the wild at Akagera National Park and rescued 203 from captivity. The team carries out routine post-release monitoring drives throughout Akagera. Construction is currently underway for a natural-habitat facility to house approximately 50 non-releasable cranes unable to fly due to injuries sustained when poached or while in captivity.
I am currently helping to fund and implement (through the AZA/Disney grants & Leiden Foundation donation) their most recent endeavor with the goal to gain a better understanding of the success of the cranes they have released so far. We are tracking their movements and behavior to determine if they are acclimating well to life in the wild. This along with RWCA’s annual census will help to determine if their efforts are making a difference in the population and how best to adjust practices to maximize impact.
Witnessing the tireless efforts of RWCA has led me to organize three successful fundraisers so far thanks to support from the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, the Leiden Foundation, the Lazy Chameleon in Powell Ohio, local musicians, and countless individuals and businesses in the surrounding area. Though I’ve only ever earned a modest income, by organizing fundraisers and successfully applying for grants I have raised over $50,000 for RWCA’s efforts to date. WE can all make a difference if we have the heart to try.
How You Can Help!
You can help by visiting RWCA’s website to learn more about the project. You can even make a direct donation on their website! Don’t forget to follow the progress of Umusambi Village and follow Wildenviro’s Facebook page so you are in the know when the next fundraising event comes around.