The grey crowned-crane is an endangered species in Rwanda, with the population falling by 80 per cent in the past 45 years. Jean Afadhali meets Dr Olivier Nsengimana, a vet on a mission to rehabilitate the birds and return them to the wild
Grey crowned-cranes are poached from the wild and sold to buyers, where they spend a short life in captivity. Deaths often occur during transportation due to being mishandled by the poachers, and if they do not die, they are permanently disabled after having their feathers cut to stop them from flying away.
In 2014, veterinarian Dr. Nsengimana started a conservation project to protect the grey crowned-crane population, of which he is the Executive Director. He explained how he noticed these cranes in hotels and in people’s homes. “I soon realised that if nothing were done, they would eventually become extinct. The main threat to them is this huge illegal trade.”
Once in captivity, they do not breed, which subsequently results in their decline. Malnutrition also greatly contributes to their extinction – when they are in people’s homes they are often fed a human diet. “This is not good for their health, these birds are used to living off grass, small insects and small reptiles that are naturally found in their environment in the wetlands and grassland habitats,” explains Dr Nsengimana. “Another threat is the loss of habitat, as many wetlands have been transformed into farm lands.”
Local communities reportedly sell cranes to dealers for as a little as 2000 RWF (about US$2.5), while dealers sell them at an extortionate price of, often up to 480,000 RWF (about US$580). “In 2012, the total number of cranes in the wild was estimated to be around 500, whereas the population used to be in the thousands,” says Dr. Nsengimana. “In other African countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia, the crane population has also declined because of similar threats.”
The conservation project runs various awareness campaigns, such as buyers being forced to register their captured cranes. After registration, they are put into quarantine, where they are tested for any diseases to make sure they will survive back in the wild. If all is clear, then the birds are taken into a rehabilitation centre in Akagera National Park.
Since the start of the programme, 216 grey crowned-cranes in captivity have been registered, with 98 rehabilitated to Akagera. The project managers are appealing for others who have not registered their cranes to do so. “We still have a long way to go,” says Dr Nsengimana. “It is taking time for people to understand our efforts and how important it is to protect these creatures from extinction.”