Symbol of wealth and longevity in Rwandan culture, the Grey Crowned Cranes have long been endangered due to habitat reduction and illegal trade. Thanks to the efforts of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) and its community mobilisation, this precious species is getting a chance once more. Besides other projects, the Umusambi Village, located on the outskirts of Kigali, offers a small oasis for recovery to cranes rescued from captivity and unable to return to the wild as they have been disabled. Both, the RWCA and Umusambi Village, are led by Dr. Olivier Nsengimana, who is veterinarian himself.
Olivier, you have been involved in the conservation of the Grey Crowned Cranes for many years now. Could you briefly sum up your work and the role your partnership with the Zoo Landau plays in it?
Our association was officially founded in 2015, working to abolish the trade of cranes and freeing them from captivity. Since they are endangered through multiple causes, we are applying a holistic, multi-pillar approach. This particularly includes raising awareness among the public, engaging the communities in our efforts, and establishing livelihood programmes creating alternative sources of income for community members who used to catch cranes for profit. In addition, we are investing in education, law enforcement monitoring the species and habitat restoration.
Based on shared beliefs and targets, our partnership with Zoo Landau and other donors has enabled us to scale up our operations. We have been collaborating with Zoo Landau, itself a partner of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union of Germany (NABU), since 2017 through various projects, ranging from kids’ education to supporting Umusambi Village. In 2017, the zoo, its zoo school and circle of friends, in cooperation with NABU and others, provided funds to buy a piece of land in the district of Burera, sector Rwerere. The land is now used for meetings of youth environmental clubs, as well as by RWCA’s Community Marsh Rangers for beekeeping or for vegetable and rabbit breeding.
More recently, funding from Zoo Landau has helped us to support and strengthen our team of Community Rangers at Ramsar protected Rugezi Marsh. Their role is to patrol the Marsh, monitor and protect Grey Crowned Cranes as well as educate community members about the need to protect the habitat. In 2021, the team of Community Rangers completed 2,084 patrols of the marsh and recorded 3,507 illegal activities such as grazing livestock or cutting grass. 55% of these were serious enough to be reported to local leaders for follow up. The work of the rangers has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic as they were able to continue the important work even while some of us were stuck in lockdowns in Kigali city. During this time, we have also seen an increase in illegal activities such as women cutting grass from the Marsh to make mats, a small increase in fishing and some hunting activities. We work closely with the communities to understand these changes, related to the economic impact of COVID-19 and an increase in poverty and hunger, and try to respond appropriately.
What role does personal exchange play in this collaboration?
Constant communication is key to our partnership. Personally, I am exchanging a lot with Dr. Jens-Ove Heckel, director of Zoo Landau, who also visited us in 2017. A major part of collaboration and project implementation is also channeled through the Jumelage office here in Kigali. Both the director and staff members of the coordination office have been involved in planning new projects.
How could the partnership strengthen your work even further?
We have to be aware that the health of animals and people are closely linked. We cannot achieve one without considering the other. Therefore, livelihood and economic aspects of our project work are important. A community approach is best-suited in Rwanda to both offer alternative sources of income and raise people’s awareness on their impact on nature and the importance of wildlife conservation. Hence, we would appreciate more support through investing in projects that tackle both livelihood and wildlife conversation, reflecting the big picture.
To what extent does your work rely on civic engagement? How can citizens from both Rwanda and Rhineland-Palatinate become involved and support your mission?
We are operating several initiatives to bring in communities, decentralising conservation through citizen science. Among these initiatives are the training of Community Rangers as well as Community Conservation Champions who act as biodiversity trackers and educators in their communities. In addition, we set up youth environmental clubs and are signing conservation agreements with selected communities.
In particular, our habitat restoration programmes combine wildlife conservation with local job creation. Through this partnership we have planted 21,755 indigenous trees to help restore two islands within Rugezi Marsh. Our approach is ‘growing trees’ rather than just ‘planting trees’ and we provided temporary employment for 550 community members over the duration of the project to care for and continue to follow up the trees. We also had the opportunity to introduce the concept of one-dollar-per-tree (per year),which not onlyoffers economic incentives for committing land to conservation, but simultaneously exposes communities to the importance of conservation. We are establishing a team of Seed Champions who are being trained in collecting indigenous seeds to support us in developing a seed bank. After having identified and consulted communities, we could extend this project with the help of additional funding. People from different places could thus help the preservation of wildlife and biodiversity in Rwanda. Besides that, they can raise awareness about our conservation work among their networks, organize local fundraising initiatives, volunteer in our association or donate funds and equipment themselves.
Which visions do you have for your work and the conservation of species worldwide?
We want to be a catalyst of extensive wildlife preservation in Rwanda and all of the East African region. Unfortunately, nowadays there is a disconnection between communities and biodiversity. We want to re-establish ownership of communities in protecting their species and natural resources. We want to showcase that conservation works better when in the hands of local communities, people who are native in the area.