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An enterprising vet working in conservation
  1. Olivier Nsengimana

Abstract

Rwandan vet, Olivier Nsengimana, recently won a Rolex award for enterprise for his mission to save the grey crowned crane, which is dying out in Rwanda because of illegal poaching. He is currently studying by distance learning for a masters degree in conservation medicine with the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

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WHEN I started university, veterinary training to doctorate level was fairly new in Rwanda, but there is a need for highly trained vets as lots of people rely on agriculture and animal husbandry to make a living. I really enjoyed my training and I was lucky enough to be put forward for an internship at the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (www.gorilladoctors.org), which provides life-saving veterinary care to critically endangered wild mountain gorillas. I began to learn more about wild animal medicine and, as soon as I was out in the field, I thought conservation was what I was meant to do with my life. At my graduation, I received the Dean's Award for the best academic performance in the faculty of veterinary medicine.

Olivier Nsengimana and colleagues examine captive grey crowned cranes in a hotel in Kigali Photographs: Rolex Awards/Thierry Grobet

Since graduating, the main project I have been involved with is PREDICT, a programme that conducts wildlife surveillance with the aim of building a global early warning system for emerging pandemic threats that move between wildlife and people.

Having been introduced to conservation work I felt inspired to make a commitment to advancing this field in my country. Countries like Rwanda have great biodiversity but there is also extreme poverty. This often means that resources and land are overstretched and competition is high between people and wildlife. I therefore believe there is so much to be done to ensure that we can live together in harmony.

I became interested in the plight of the grey crowned cranes in Rwanda when I was made aware of the declining numbers and the threat of illegal poaching, but at the time I did not have any funds or way to intervene.

There are estimated to be only 300 to 500 of these cranes left in the wild in my country and they were upgraded in 2012 from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ on the IUCN red list. The dramatic decline is due to a number of different threats, mainly the destruction of their natural habitat and illegal trade. Rwanda has a high population density and, coupled with poverty, there is a high demand on land and resources. For example, people started to use the cranes' marshland habitat for agricultural purposes. In addition, other factors have affected their numbers, such as conflict with farmers in crop raiding and the market for cranes as pets and their use in traditional medicine practices.

I wrote a project proposal and applied for the Rolex award, but the application was a long process. Then, out of the blue, I was called for interview, shortlisted from over 1800 applicants from all over the world. I was selected as one of 22 finalists and then finally I found out that the international jury had selected me as one of the five winners.

Olivier educates a class of students on the need for protecting grey crowned cranes living near their school

The overall aim of my project is to increase the number of cranes in the wild in Rwanda through a campaign to raise awareness of the conservation issues. We are asking people to register captive cranes and these birds will be marked by a numbered leg band. This will help us to establish a national database of captive cranes and better control the illegal trade. It is difficult to estimate how many cranes we will get as first we need to find out how many are in captivity. The ones we know about are kept in public places such as hotels and restaurants; and sometimes you hear the call of a crane when walking around residential areas of the city.

We hope to select around 50 cranes to be returned to their natural habitat. We won't be able to reintroduce all the cranes that are in captivity as we believe the number could be more than 200 around the country, and we don't have the funds for such a large scale programme.

Cranes in captivity are very unlikely to reproduce, so every crane that is successfully reintroduced to its natural habitat may help the numbers grow in the wild.

Cranes that are surrendered to us for rehabilitation will first spend two months in a quarantine facility where they will be screened for disease and given a full health check. Then they will be transferred to a rehabilitation centre built within Akagera National Park, where they will be reintroduced to natural behaviours that they did not need in captivity, such as foraging for food and nest building. A soft release will allow the cranes to come and go during the day, with some supplementary food while they get used to the environment. One problem we face is that some cranes have had their wings broken or feathers cut to prevent them flying. Some of these cranes will never be able to survive in the wild so they will not be able to be reintroduced.

Wild grey crowned cranes flying in the Rugezi marshlands of Rwanda

A very important part of the project to ensure that the work is sustainable in the long term, is the launch of a national awareness campaign about the needs of crane conservation. This will involve working with local communities around the natural habitats of the cranes and encouraging law enforcement. One of the threats to crane populations is illegal poaching of the birds, their chicks or eggs. When people live in poverty and need to provide for their families, it is hard to persuade them not to engage in poaching activities. One approach to this is finding ways for people to establish alternative sources of food and income and educating people on how to pursue livelihoods without threatening endangered species.

Enrolling on a masters degree in conservation medicine is allowing me to further my knowledge, giving me the opportunity to enhance my knowledge in the field of conservation and put into practice what I learn. The modules fit in well with what I am currently doing, as well as giving me inspiration for the kind of work I would love to get involved with further along in my career. It is an online course over three years, so it is great for me as I can do it alongside my job. It is a really good course, with students coming from all over the world, so we are able to discuss conservation issues from different perspectives and cultures, taking into account differences in development and resources.

Aside from my masters degree, winning a Rolex award has proved to me that anything is possible and I hope to inspire other young Rwandan conservationists to initiate their projects and ideas too. I want to continue working in the field of conservation as there are so many different species that are threatened and so many different demands on our world's resources. I would like to find opportunities to provide consultation to others, sharing my experience and learning.

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