Marsh Rangers patrolling the marsh © RWCA
By Olivier Nsengimana and the RWCA team
There is a big push globally, to engage community members in conservation work, but there are mixed results and we all continue to work hard to get the methods right and to make sure that there is a long-term impact. The Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA) has been working tirelessly for 5 years to save the endangered Grey Crowned Cranes in Rwanda. Our approach is holistic, trying to target the problem from all angles to ensure that we focus on all the threats.
It is in our advantage that RWCA is founded and run by Rwandans who really understand the context and spend a lot of time within the communities getting to know the real challenges they face, thinking creatively about possible solutions and how to find ways for people and wildlife to co-exist. We are always learning, and we believe that our project work needs to continually adapt and evolve alongside the problems that arise. However, this year we are also celebrating, as we have some great tangible results which are giving us hope for conservation and for the future of the cranes.
Thanks to the CEPF small grants programme in the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, managed by BirdLife International, we were able to scale-up our work around Rugezi Marsh to improve its management and protection. With this funding, we expanded our team of Marsh Rangers recruited from the communities around the marsh from 15 to 25, and they are now able to patrol all 8 sectors surrounding the marsh. Their role is to patrol the marsh, educate local people about the need to protect it, and monitor the population of cranes in the area. They also record illegal activities within the marsh such as cutting grass, grazing livestock or poaching cranes, and report serious activities or repeat offenders to local leaders.
Grey Crowned Cranes sighted at Rugezi Marsh in the 2019 census © RWCA
Rugezi Marsh has always been one of the key focus areas of our project. It was once thought to host the largest population of Grey Crowned Cranes in Rwanda, although numbers were rapidly dwindling. The area is challenged by the number of people living nearby the marsh, and their reliance on the marsh for natural resources despite it being a protected area. To better understand the population of cranes in Rwanda, we started conducting an annual census nationwide. This involved aerial surveys over Rugezi Marsh and Akagera National Park, as well as ground surveys in other areas of the country. In 2017, our first national census found 487 cranes, in line with other basic population estimates. Sadly, we only sighted 71 cranes in Rugezi Marsh at that time, which meant it no longer hosted the largest population of cranes in Rwanda. During that census we also counted 341 people cutting grass, 23 boats and 77 livestock in Rugezi Marsh.
However, in our 2018 census we saw a slight increase in Rugezi Marsh with 94 cranes sighted. The great news is that this year, in 2019, we sighted 748 Grey Crowned Cranes nationwide and 134 in Rugezi Marsh! We also saw a greater number of juveniles which suggest cranes are breeding more successfully, and there were significantly less people in the marsh. We believe some of this success is down to our team of Marsh Rangers and our continual work with the communities and local leaders who are understanding how important the marsh is to their community and how everyone needs to work together to protect it.
One of the Marsh Rangers talking to community members about community involvement during a meeting organized by local leaders © RWCA
Yet, it is not only the cranes that benefit from this success. Our involvement with local communities and the development of our Marsh Rangers has empowered them both socially and economically and improved their lives. RWCA purposely employs women as well as men as rangers and the impact this has had on the lives of some of our rangers is amazing. Marie Claire, one of our rangers recruited through the CEPF grant, told us that:
“I was not informed about the importance of the marsh and many times I went into the marsh to cut grass. After being trained by RWCA, I have stopped these activities. It was a difficult decision, but I made it and then I started the work of educating other women who were doing the same as me. Thanks to RWCA, I have this privilege and I am proud of being a ranger. Before, I could not imagine how a woman could be a ranger because I thought it was the work for men only. It has given me confidence and I can now stand and educate the community about the importance of Rugezi marsh."
RWCA works with the rangers to support them in developing income generating activities as a way to improve their livelihoods. They also choose to organize their own small savings groups and have found ways to start small businesses, buy animals and improve their lives. Jean Baptiste explain to us how the project has been advantageous for him:
One of the Marsh Rangers who saved money to build a house © RWCA
"I joined the team of marsh rangers in August 2018, and RWCA gave us training. I then really understood the importance of Rugezi Marsh and why it should be protected, and this has improved my discipline, knowledge about the environment, hygiene, and ways of working with local communities. I have improved my confidence and I can contribute to improve the management of Rugezi Marsh. I saved some money in community saving groups and it has helped me to buy stone and sand to continue building my house. RWCA also gave me a pregnant pig which has just given me 12 piglets, and manure for my land which will increase the production. I am very happy to be a part of this team."
So, this year we are not only celebrating the results of our national crane census, we are also celebrating the community members that have contributed to this result. We hope that RWCA shows that conservation work brings people together and can give us hope for the future, for cranes, other wildlife, the habitat and for communities.
BirdLife International runs the Regional Implementation Team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the Eastern Afromontane Hotspot (2012 -2019). See the interactive map of all projects implemented under the CEPF Eastern Afromontane Hotspot programme here.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation. More information on the CEPF can be found at www.cepf.net.