Written by: Olivier Nsengimana
Last week, months of hard work came to fruition when we successfully moved 40 endangered grey crowned cranes from captivity back to the wild.
The project Save Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes in Rwanda aims to protect cranes from the threat of poaching and habitat destruction to ensure the species does not become extinct. Grey crowned cranes are an iconic species and often sought after by hotels and families as pets or for aesthetic purposes. In captivity, cranes are often stressed, malnourished and their feathers are cut to stop them from flying away, as a result they stop breeding. In addition to this the the capturing of cranes is in fact illegal.
Save Endangered Grey Crowned Cranes in Rwanda is working with the Rwandan government calling all people to declare their cranes to the organisation to be registered and fitted with a numbered leg band. So far we have registered over 130 cranes just in the capital city of Kigali and as word gets around, more people are calling in everyday. The bands allow us to monitor captive cranes and allow us to determine if any new illegal cranes have been captured. It is our plan to one day release all these cranes back in the wild but for now we have releaseds 40 cranes back into Akagera National Park.
It was a big operation to organise. We first selected those cranes that were most likely to survive in the wild – those that are still young, healthy and have not been habituated by humans. The 40 cranes were put into quarantine for two months to monitor their heath. This was to ensure that they did not have any problems that might compromise their survival once reintroduced to the wild but also to avoid the risk of taking a new disease (easily picked up from humans, pets or chickens) into the wild.
Then they were ready to go. Crates were specially made to transport each crane on the long, gruelling journey to Akagera National Park that is managed by African Parks. We had to stop numerous times on the trip to ensure the cranes were not too stressed or hot. We were working in collaboration with the Akagera Management Company who built a facility that enabled the ‘soft release’ of the cranes. The cranes have become used to being given food every day, interacting with people and not flying. To survive in the wild, they need to relearn or remember behaviours such as food foraging. They also need time to grow back their feathers. In the soft release facility they will get limited food and there is no netting over the enclosure so when they are ready they can fly around and explore.
It was an exciting but nerve-wracking as we released the cranes from their travel crates into the facility. The cranes were finally on their way to being wild again. During the quarantine period, we got to know the cranes well and we had watched with amusement as one female and one male strutted and danced with each other through the wire mesh of their adjacent cages. On release, they have been united and seem to be inseparable. We hope they will form a couple and start breeding.