Rolex Young Laureate 2014


Saving Rwanda’s bird of fortune

Olivier Nsengimana Olivier Nsengimana

Saving Rwanda’s only species of crane – the grey crowned-crane – is just the first step of Olivier Nsengimana’s plan to inspire young people to invest in the conservation of his country’s extraordinary wildlife.

Wildlife conservationist Olivier Nsengimana came through the dark days of the Rwandan genocide with a passionate desire to help rebuild his country. Most at home in the lush mountain forests of northern Rwanda, he works as a field veterinarian with the world-famous Gorilla Doctors, and as a scientist conducting disease surveillance in wild animals to identify potentially dangerous viruses before they jump into the human population.

PreservingRwanda’s biodiversity

Now committed to the conservation of Rwanda’s wildlife, he is devoting himself to saving the grey crowned-crane – a symbol of longevity that is threatened with extinction.

The global population of grey crowned-cranes has crashed over the past 45 years, falling by 50–80 per cent. Their situation is so serious that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed them as “endangered” in 2012. In Rwanda there only 300 – 500 of these cranes left in the wild.

Rwanda’sEndangered Animals

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The problem


  • The grey crowned-crane is not the only animal in need of help

  • Mountain gorillaGorilla beringei beringei

  • ChimpanzeePan troglodytes

  • Grauer’s
    swamp warblerBradypterus graueri

  • Black or hook-lipped
    rhinocerosDiceros bicornis

  • Hill’s
    Horseshoe batRhinolophus hilli

  • The grey crowned-crane is only one of the species that face possible extinction in Rwanda. While the black rhinoceros, once the most numerous rhino species, has already disappeared from the region, other animals, including chimpanzees and bats endemic to the country’s forests, are endangered or critically endangered, according to IUCN’s 2014 Red List of Endangered Species, recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plants and animals.

  • An endangered species, the mountain gorilla is found on the forested volcanic slopes of the Virunga mountains of central Africa, home to almost half the estimated global population of 700 animals. In the wild they live to about 35 years. Gorillas tend to be ground dwelling, though they can climb trees. They eat roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery and tree bark and pulp, live in troops of up to 30 individuals, usually under the leadership of a dominant male, sometimes known as a ‘silverback’ because of the silver hair that develops on all adult male gorillas. Adult males can stand up to 1.8 metres tall and weigh up to 250 kg. Mountain gorillas are the only great ape population increasing in numbers, largely due to the protection from tourism and research, and veterinary care.

  • Another endangered primate, the chimpanzee inhabits forests, woodlands and grasslands. In Rwanda they are found in the Nyungwe Forest National Park. Social animals living in communities of several dozen individuals, chimpanzees are omnivorous but live mainly on fruit and plants. They tend to be arboreal, although they can spend time on the ground. In the wild they have an average lifespan of 45 years. An adult chimp can grow up to 1.7 metres tall and weigh 60 kg.

  • A small, dark brown bird with a whitish underbelly, the Grauer’s swamp warbler lives in mountain swamp vegetation at altitudes between 1,950 to 2,600 metres. The largest known population is in Rwanda’s Rugezi marshlands. Unfortunately, before this area became protected, some parts were drained for agriculture, reducing the warbler’s habitat, thus putting the bird in the endangered category. The warbler lives on small seeds and insects, such as beetles and caterpillars. They are monogamous and territorial birds, but can be more sociable out of the breeding season. The warbler is about 17 cm long and weighs between 17 and 19 g.

  • Once seen widely throughout much of Africa, the black or hook-lipped rhinoceros is now a critically endangered species, already extinct in Rwanda. However, repatriation programmes are having success in both Malawi and Zambia, where the species was once extinct, and it is hoped to reintroduce this rhino into Rwanda. Black rhinos are herbivorous browsers with a preference for leaves. The average rhino’s lifespan is between 35 to 50 years and an adult male can grow to 1.8 metres at the shoulder and weigh up to 1,400 kg. Rhinos tend to be solitary animals, coming together only to mate. Rivalry can be intense at these times, with animals frequently killing each other in combat. This death rate has been exacerbated by poaching due to the high demand for rhino horn, which fetches US$30,000 per pound.

  • A small, nocturnal insectivorous flying mammal, the Hill’s horseshoe bat has a horseshoe protuberance on the end of its nose. Listed as critically endangered, it is found only in an area less than 100 square kilometres in a single location (Nyungwe Forest National Park in Rwanda). Little is known about the Hill’s Horseshoe bat and no colonies have yet been located in the caves of the area. It is threatened by loss of habitat due to the encroachment of agriculture and logging. It is hoped that a bat awareness programme among local residents will enhance its chances of survival.

Species in the wild

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2014 Rolex Young Laureate Olivier Nsengimana describes his project to save Rwanda’s only species of crane and inspire young people to invest in the conservation of his country’s extraordinary wildlife.

Saving Rwanda’s iconic bird

“I grew up hearing the calls of the grey crowned-cranes,” says Olivier Nsengimana, recalling his happy childhood west of Kigali. “We lived with them, but they were not in our gardens.” These days it is in a garden or the grounds of a hotel that you are most likely to encounter one of the birds. Graceful, dancing, long-necked creatures, with stilt-like legs and whimsical golden crests, they can be seen strutting around swimming pools as though they were made to be feathered ornaments. But ornaments they are not. “People cut the feathers so that they can’t fly away. Sometimes they even break their wings,” says Nsengimana. “It’s ironic. In Rwanda they are a symbol of wealth and longevity, yet most of them die in captivity without breeding.”

Prized as pets, the birds are photographed, petted, chased. They are given the wrong food and deprived of appropriate nesting conditions. They die of stress, injuries, malnutrition. They are also exported by illegal wildlife traders, and killed for use in traditional medicine.

Those birds lucky enough to be in the wild face other challenges. Rwanda is a small, densely populated country with 11 million people, half of whom live on under US$1 a day. “There are around 400 people per square kilometre,” Nsengimana says. As a result, most of the marshlands have been drained to make room for agriculture or housing. To compensate for their loss of habitat to agriculture and construction, many cranes have learned to forage on farmland. This exposes them to toxic agrochemicals or poisoned bait deliberately set by farmers.

To prevent the grey crowned-crane from disappearing in Rwanda, Nsengimana is channelling his considerable drive into an initiative to return captive birds to the wild. His plan is to send the birds to a facility closer to the capital, Kigali, to ensure they are healthy before delivering them to a rehabilitation centre, which is already being built in Akagera National Park, in the north-east of the country. In a process known as a ‘soft release’, they will be encouraged to forage beyond the perimeter of the centre by restricting their food. Hunger will call them back into the wild.

Nsengimana plans to conduct a survey and to establish a national database that will serve to map the population in captivity, and to monitor progress. Recognizing that convincing people to give up their pets is going to be a challenge, he is hopeful that a nationwide information campaign and amnesty programme will help. Part of the Rolex Award prize money will be used to fund this campaign, a vital strand of which will be to educate people in how to pursue livelihoods without threatening endangered species. “It is clear that just having laws and making appeals is not going to be enough,” he says.

Dancing partners for life

Grey crowned-cranes appear to choose their dancing partners for life, a long time, given that individuals can live for 22 years in the wild. They are also ‘home birds’; they never migrate and only make localized searches for food and nesting sites. They typically nest within or on the edges of marshes, and during the breeding season lay clutches of up to three eggs, which are incubated by both sexes. The bird has a distinctive golden crest and has a bright red throat pouch, which it inflates to make its characteristic booming call.

Educating Rwanda’s young people

“I don’t just want more conservation projects in Rwanda, I want those that are established to be sustainable,” says Nsengimana. An important part of achieving this vision will be educating Rwanda’s children, and it is for this reason that Nsengimana is keen to get out into schools. “The Gorilla Doctors really inspired me when I first encountered them at the veterinary school. I want to do the same for others. Rwanda needs young conservationists, and it’s essential that young veterinarians take ownership of conservation projects like this one.”

Olivier Nsengimana

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Standing 1 metre tall and with a wingspan of 2 metres, grey crowned-cranes are an imposing sight as they roam Rwanda’s marshlands. One of the most striking aspects of the crane’s behaviour is its courtship display, an extraordinary, head-bobbing dance.

Olivier Nsengimana

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Nsengimana and his team place leg bands on a grey crowned-crane kept in captivity. Using Rolex funds, he hopes to establish a national database that will serve to map the population in captivity in Rwanda and identify those that might be reintroduced to the wild.

Olivier Nsengimana

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Spotting nests in Rwanda’s marshlands takes a very practised eye. Grey crowned-cranes create round nesting platforms in tall vegetation to avoid being spotted by predators.

Olivier Nsengimana

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Grey crowned-cranes can be found across a number of sub-Saharan countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya. “The population of these cranes in Rwanda has crashed by at least 80 per cent,” says Nsengimana.

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Follow Olivier Nsengimana as he takes steps to save Rwanda’s iconic grey crowned-crane. Join other people, all over the world, who are helping Nsengimana to inspire the next generation of conservationists in his country.