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Kigali wetland turns into reserve for grey crowned cranes

Umusambi Village, new sanctuary for grey crowned crane birds in Kigali. / Photo: Courtesy.

Last year, the number of wild grey-crowned cranes in Rwanda reached impressive levels, hitting nearly 750, a step that was then seen as a milestone given that five years ago it was a completely different story.

There were grey crowned cranes in captivity everywhere in hotels and in private gardens in the country. With only an estimated 400 cranes remaining in the wild, they were rapidly heading towards extinction.


One organisation, Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA), kicked off an ambitious project to save the long-legged endangered birds from poaching and illegal trade.


After setting up Akagera National park and Rugezi Marsh in Burera District as new habitats for these species, the organisation led by Olivier Nsengimana, a renowned conservationist, has set up another village in Kigali for rescued cranes.


The 34-year-old Nsengimana and his team of conservationists has revamped a popular wetland of Bambino Supercity into a nature reserve for wild crowned cranes.

Umusambi Village is a new sanctuary for crowned crane birds that can no longer fly, a reserve to all crane birds confiscated from private gardens around Kigali and other parts.

The village is a 21-hectare nature reserve, the first of its kind in Kigali that will allow visitors to enjoy walking trails while learning about the importance of protecting natural environments.

It provides home to over 70 endangered grey crowned cranes saved from the illegal pet trade, according to the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association.

Nsengimana, the organisation’s founder, told The New Times that they have been working to stop the illegal trade, raise awareness and return many of the captive cranes back to the wild.

“Throughout the process of rescuing these species, we came across many cranes that were disabled and injured as a result of living in captivity,” he noted.

This is often linked to their capture and transportation or because people cut feathers or wings to stop them flying away and without expertise it can go horribly wrong.

The disabled cranes that were unable to be returned to the wild deserved home, which pushed Nsengimana and his team to negotiate with the government to dedicate a permanent space for them.

“Umusambi Village became part of the solution to ensure that these cranes have a permanent natural home and that Rwanda can achieve its goal of having no cranes in captivity,” he said.

Conservation picture

Nsengimana, a veterinarian by profession, believes the new home will not only be home to crowned cranes, but a representation of the large picture of conservation in Rwanda, allowing residents and tourists a different alternative.

“The place is going to serve as a home to other species that were previously held in captivity. It will be an ecosystem place where people can connect with nature; where you step and feel it’s a different place,” he said.

So far, there are more than 120 species of birds at the residence, and Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association has adopted a business-driven model to sustain the conservation efforts.

Umusambi Village is home to a host of other different species living within the wetland including small mammals, amphibians, insects, and birds such as palm nut vulture, fan-tailed widowbird, and speckled mousebird.

Bigger plans

The Village will provide open space for the cranes with suitable and enriching habitat, as well as recreation trails, educational exhibits, viewing platforms, and a visitor center with an environmental education space, a café and a gift shop.

The facility will provide conservation education and recreation opportunities for local and international visitors.

It will act as an educational and research center, and a place where school groups and families can see and learn about threatened native wildlife.

They say it will also support the organisation’s work of increasing awareness and changing behaviors towards poaching, the pet trade, and habitat protection.

Nsengimana has been working since 2014 to save these endangered species, which has earned him several awards and prizes.

Last year, Nsengimana who’s also a former gorilla doctor, won the prestigious Future For Nature (FFN) 2019 Award, which celebrates achievements in protecting wild animals and plant species.

A year before, in 2018, he received the Whitley Award by HRH The Princess Royal in London, walking away with a prize worth £40,000 (Rwf34 million) in project funding.

He received the 2017 National Geographic Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation in Africa, and in 2014, he won the 2014 Rolex Awards for Enterprise worth 50,000 Swiss francs (about Rwf38 million) for his conservation approach to protect grey-crowned cranes.

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