How the Grey Crowned Crane Almost Vanished
In Rwanda, this magnificent national icon was nearly wiped out until Olivier Nsengimana turned things around.
When we were considering additions to our Vanishing Species collection, the Grey Crowned Crane danced its way into our hearts. “When we were in Kenya earlier this year, we saw these extraordinary and rare cranes in the wild, which was spectacular—it’s how they are meant to live and be seen,” Sylvie Chantecaille recalls. “They are a work of art—every feather is breathtaking, and every movement they make is distinguished. They are the essence of elegance.” But it’s their beauty that makes them so vulnerable, she notes—often trafficked, domesticated, or debilitated by losing its native habitat. “We can’t let this animal disappear from the wild.”
Fortunately we learned about the work of Olivier Nsengimana, the founder of Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, who has waged a singular battle on behalf of the Grey Crowned Crane in his home country of Rwanda. His impact cannot be overstated: Wild populations of the crane have nearly doubled in the three years since RWCA started their census. We chatted with Nsengimana, whose work with his team has continued in earnest during his country’s long lockdown.
RWCA-led habitat restoration efforts in Rwanda
How did you get involved in Grey Crowned Crane conservation?
I grew up in the southern part of Rwanda, and there were many of these cranes around. Here, the Grey Crowned Crane has always been special, a symbol of wealth and longevity. They are so beautiful with their distinctive golden crown and the way they dance with each other. When you saw them, it was a sign the wetlands were healthy. I loved them, and as a boy, I always dreamed of being able to fly. I would tie clothes onto my arms to make wings, but it would never work and I fell down many times! We lived in a village, and I would get up very early in the morning to go to fetch water from the river at the valley bottom. My friends and I would use the early morning crane call as an alarm clock so we would know when to meet.
I always loved nature and wild animals and was lucky to get the opportunity to study veterinary medicine at university. The training was mainly focused on livestock, but I knew that wasn’t the area I wanted to work in. In my final year of studies, I had the chance to intern as a field veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors within Volcanoes National Park. Once out in the field working with these amazing animals, I was like “Wow, I’m a gorilla doctor!” and knew that this was what I wanted to do in life. I thought my journey was finished. But it was just beginning.
“When I went back to my village to visit my family, I didn’t see the cranes anymore and wanted to know why.”
I went on to get my Masters in Veterinary Science Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. There, I learned about other endangered species that were not receiving any help. There are many organizations helping the mountain gorillas, but there were not so many helping lesser-known species like cranes. When I went back to my village to visit my family, I didn’t see the cranes anymore and wanted to know why. You couldn’t find them in the wetlands; they were mainly in people’s homes in the city and in big hotels. They were being taken from the wild and kept as pets, and I felt this was so wrong. In fact, at that time, Rwanda had fewer cranes than gorillas in the wild. That’s when I decided to use my knowledge and my passion to make a difference for this species.
The non-profit educates schoolchildren on the importance of cranes and their habitats
What are the main threats facing the crane?
Cranes used to be everywhere in Rwanda, a mountainous country with over 800 marshlands (at the bottom of every hill there is usually a marsh). But it is also small and highly populated, and there’s a lot of pressure to produce food through agriculture, so the disappearance of marshlands means that cranes disappear, too. And so one huge threat is habitat loss, as the demand for land increases and people use wetland areas for farming or disturb the habitat by cutting grass or grazing their livestock on the marshes.
Before we started work to protect the cranes in Rwanda, the largest threat to cranes was the illegal trade of for pets. Globally, there is a big market for cranes in the Middle East and Asia, where there are many new safari parks and zoos being created. There is some evidence that cranes are also used in in traditional medicine in some parts of the world. In Rwanda, wealthy people used to keep cranes as pets and were unaware of the environmental consequences of doing so. These captive cranes are usually stressed, malnourished, have had their feathers cut to prevent them from flying (which often results in injuries such as broken wings), don't breed and die prematurely. There was a general lack of awareness in Rwanda about the endangered status of cranes and that it is illegal to keep them in captivity.
How does RWCA work to combat these problems?
Our aim is to end the illegal trade in cranes in Rwanda and ensure that their numbers are increasing in the wild. Starting in 2014, we launched a national campaign to raise awareness that it is illegal to keep cranes in captivity and that they will become extinct in Rwanda if we don’t do something about it. Essentially, we used our national love of cranes to influence change. People came forward voluntarily as part of an amnesty program to declare the cranes they were keeping in their houses. Most people didn’t know it was illegal, or that they were doing harm. Then we visited all those houses, registered them, conducted a health check on the cranes and gave them a numbered leg band. Those that were healthy we reintroduced to the wild in Akagera National Park after a period of quarantine and rehabilitation in which the cranes would re-learn behaviors they would need to survive in the wild. We have now reintroduced 166 cranes into Akagera, where they are enjoying their newfound freedom.
Unfortunately, there are many cranes kept in captivity that are unable to go back to the wild, because their wings have been broken or they have suffered other injuries as a consequence of being kept in captivity. And so we have acquired the use of 25 hectares of wetland from the government to create a nature sanctuary for cranes in the capital city of Kigali, giving them a second chance at a good life. We have over 50 Grey Crowned Cranes living there, all of which have disabilities and are unable to fly. Yet they are already starting to breed, and we recently had our first chicks born at the sanctuary! We have also transformed it into a tourism attraction with beautiful walking trails, providing the opportunity for people to connect with nature and learn about the importance of protecting Grey Crowned Cranes and wetland habitats.
Grey Crowned Cranes at the rehabilitation facility at Akagera National Park
On another front, we know that cranes end up in captivity because community members living near the wetlands poach them and sell them, which is often driven by poverty. We have implemented many initiatives around wetland habitats to deter people from poaching and providing alternative ways to make income. We have a team of Marsh Rangers creating jobs for the communities near the marsh. The Rangers make daily patrols to protect the marsh, monitor the cranes, report illegal activities taking place within the marsh and educate people about the importance of cranes and their habitats. We visit schools to inspire young people to care for their environment and they pledge to stop taking eggs or cranes chicks. We also work to restore habitats such as planting indigenous trees, which are ideal roosting trees for cranes.
We have tried to target the problem from all angles to ensure that we can have a sustainable impact. We work closely with the government to fight illegal wildlife trafficking and have created an inter-agency committee to discuss and improve the way Rwanda responds to wildlife crimes and improve the capacity of the National Police and other stakeholders. Both the supply and demand for cranes as pets has drastically reduced and many cases of poached cranes are reported to us, as communities are now aware that it is illegal.
RWCA founder Olivier Nsengimana planting trees with schoolchildren
Can you tell us about the findings from your latest census and what they mean?
Since 2017, we have conducted a national census of Grey Crowned Cranes as a way of monitoring the population. This involves both aerial and ground surveys. In 2017, we sighted 487 cranes and in 2020 we sighted 881, so we are confident that what we are doing is working to restore the population of cranes in Rwanda.
What is the most gratifying aspect of your work? What are you proudest of?
After working hard for the last six years, the thing I am most proud of is seeing a shift in people’s attitudes. Everywhere we go, we now meet people who know about cranes and why they are so important to protect. Our teams of Rangers and Champions have grown in confidence and have built relationships within their communities and have spent many hours educating people and raising awareness of the issues. Community members are now taking ownership over these birds, have a sense of pride in their beauty. When I started this work, it felt like I was battling to champion a cause on my own, and now I feel so proud that throughout the country there are so many people working together to protect cranes and their habitats. This is fantastic. With so many children now onboard too and interested in the environment and wildlife, this gives me a lot of hope for the future of conservation in Rwanda.
How do you plan to use the donation from Chantecaille?
A donation from Chantecaille will go towards the ongoing support of our Community Marsh Rangers, providing opportunities for further training and mentorship as well as equipment they need to do their job well such as rain gear and binoculars.
Video footage with credit to Tusk Trust
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