In a country scarred by genocide and struggling to rebuild its economy, conservation may not be a priority. But that is exactly what academically brilliant Rwandan Olivier Nsengimana chose for an occupation, instead of opting for a lucrative job. “I knew that whatever I did with my life, I had to contribute something meaningful to my country,” says the 30-year-old veterinarian, who was 10 during the 1994 genocide. He says he was “touched by the story of a young man, who, instead of fighting for himself, fights for conservation.”
Olivier, who began as a volunteer with Gorilla Doctors as a field veterinarian, has since begun focusing on other animals even more endangered than the gorilla, particularly grey crowned cranes, which are fast dying out for want of conservation. A symbol of prosperity, the grey-coloured bird which has a golden-tufted crown and a flame-red spot on its neck, is prized by Rwanda’s elite. Despite a ban on poaching the birds, the locals, facing abject poverty, also capture and sell the birds in the market as chickens, reducing the wild population of the crane in Rwanda to a mere 300 to 500.
Olivier, who would continue his work with Gorilla doctors, has a huge task ahead, from documenting the bird’s population to setting up rehabilitation centres, and convincing bird owners to release their birds into the wild, while also creating awareness to prevent poaching. “So far, the feedback has been positive. The collectors of Cranes, despite prizing them as pets, understand that the birds need freedom,” says Olivier. As far as poaching goes, it is difficult to tackle in a country with poverty if the question of people’s livelihoods is not addressed. As part of his awareness-raising programme, Olivier will run a national media campaign to educate people about how to pursue livelihoods without threatening endangered species.
Olivier hopes his project will serve as a model for other African nations and wants to foster a young generation of conservationists to take forward the work in the long term.
Created in 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise introduced the young laureates’ category in 2010. Anyone below the age of 30, who has an idea that would advance human knowledge and well-being in the areas of Science and Health; Applied Technology; Exploration and Discovery; the Environment; and Cultural Heritage, may apply. Noting that “many youngsters these days are altruistic and use technology to find quick solutions to the problems they see around,” Rebecca Irwin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, points out that the Awards are given to further new or ongoing projects through financial assistance and recognition, and not for past achievements. RAE received 1,800 applications this time, many of them from India. The Awards are biennial, alternating between those for Laureates and Young Laureates. The next edition is for Laureates in 2016. Details at www.rolexawards.com.