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Lessons from Rwanda’s Successful Conservation of Species Dwindling in the Wild

In Rwanda’s lush green grasslands, romance isn’t dead, but it’s had a brush with extinction in recent years. The country’s gray crowned cranes — birds which dance for each other, often pair for life and share chick-raising duties — fell victim to their own popularity. Captured as chicks and kept as status symbol pets in the gardens of hotels and private homes, the birds were almost wiped out. Destruction of their habitat for agriculture added to the pressure and by 2012, only around 300 remained in the wild. But the species has undergone a remarkable recovery in Rwanda thanks to local vet and conservationist Olivier Nsengimana. Living in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Nsengimana had found it strange to hear cranes calling from people’s gardens, while wild habitats were almost devoid of the birds. In 2014, Nsengimana worked with the Rwandan government to launch an amnesty program encouraging owners to surrender their pets, without fear of prosecution. He broadcast his message on national radio, asking pet owners to call him on his personal phone number. “I said, I know you also love them, we all love them, but if we keep them in our gardens … we are going to lose them.” Crane owners across the country responded. Since 2014, 242 gray crowned cranes have been successfully rescued from captivity, says Nsengimana. Healthy birds were released to a rehabilitation site in Akagera National Park, near Rwanda’s border with Tanzania, where they relearned how to forage in the wild. Gray crowned cranes are found in 15 countries across eastern and southern Africa, with the biggest populations in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia.