This Earth Day, meet the wildlife doctor working to save animals across Rwanda

Dr. Olivier Nsengimana started the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association to save grey crowned cranes and other species

Whether cruising along a smooth Rwandan highway or bumping along down a rough dirt road, Dr. Olivier Nsengimana will be dancing in the driver’s seat to music pouring from his car’s speakers.

The wildlife veterinarian finds joy in these mobile jam sessions, but Nsengimana doesn’t have much downtime. Even as he drives, his phone rings frequently as he juggles logistics for the day’s conservation work.

KPRC 2 met Dr. Nsengimana in Rwanda while there learning about conservation programs the Houston Zoo supports. He’s currently the founder and executive director of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA), a group that got its start saving grey crowned cranes.

KPRC 2 anchor Andy Cerota interviews Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association founder Dr. Olivier Nsengimana (KPRC/

Nsengimana told our team he developed a love for the majestic birds when he was just a boy. On multiple occasions, he described their movements like dancing.

While it seems fitting the dancing wildlife doctor made it his mission to save the dancing birds, that’s far from all he does.

Grey crowned cranes spread their wings in the protected Rugezi Wetlands in Rwanda (KPRC/

Saving Gorillas

Before launching RWCA, Nsengimana worked for Gorilla Doctors, which is another program the Houston Zoo provides financial, veterinary, and strategic guidance to in the African country.

In 2010, Nsengimana interned for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which runs Gorilla Doctors in partnership with the University of California Davis Wildlife Health Center. The next year, in 2011, he officially joined Gorilla Doctors as a field veterinarian.

Silverback gorilla in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (KPRC2/

For the next four years, he provided life-saving veterinary care to endangered mountain gorillas, while studying the impacts of infectious diseases which can be transmitted between gorillas and people.

Saving Grey Crowned Cranes

In 2014, Nsengimana was ready to expand his conservation footprint. In 2015, he founded the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (RWCA). The nonprofit organization was designed to expand research and grow conservation projects focused on saving endangered or threatened species in Rwanda, including grey crowned cranes.

When RWCA was first formed, it was estimated there were more grey crowned cranes in captivity in Rwanda than in the wild. Wealthy families had them as pets, hotels had them on display, and many birds were injured and unable to fly.

A grey crowned crane spreads its wings in Rwanda (KPRC/

Nsengimana, who had been fascinated with the birds since he was a child, launched RWCA in part to abolish the illegal trade of grey crowned cranes and to work to restore the wild population.

While successfully doing that, more RWCA conservation initiatives took flight.

Grey crowned cranes fly over the Rugezi Marsh in Rwanda (KPRC2/

Protecting the Marsh, Improving lives

RWCA now has a team of rangers protecting the grey crowned crane population in the Rugezi Marsh. In 2023, Nsengimana told us 75 marsh rangers worked for RWCA. Roughly a third of them had previously been responsible for illegal activity impacting wildlife, he said.

He explained teaching them about conservation and giving them a way to benefit from it goes farther than punishing them for past behaviors. One ranger shared immense pride with us that he was part of the solution to save grey crowned cranes and the Rugezi Marsh.

Marsh rangers working to save grey crowned cranes in Rwanda do a cheer for conservation (KPRC2/

While some activity impacting the marsh is illegal, other actions by villagers who were simply trying to care for their families also had a negative impact. Cows were allowed to graze in areas where the birds might nest, destroying the vegetation the cranes needed. RWCA worked to come up with a solution that benefitted both the cranes and the people who owned the cows.

With RWCA funds, they built a structure on some nearby land where the cows and the hay they needed could be kept. The move also gave the villagers an easy way to harvest manure, which is a source of income. The land the cattle had been living on was replanted with native trees, grown by RWCA staff.

Inside a cattle barn built with support from the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association (KPRC/

In addition, RWCA has looked for other ways to improve the lives of nearby villagers. They’ve helped repair homes and provided ways for families to gather rain water. When one man’s cow died, RWCA chose to use funds to help him get a new one -- knowing the positive impact would trickle down.

They’ve also formed a women’s sewing cooperative which provided training to women from areas around the Rugezi Marsh, so they had a means to bring in income, without relying on resources from the marsh.

Women from areas surrounding the Rugezi Marsh in Rwanda have received training to sew, so they have a means to make income -- that doesn't rely on taking resources from the protected marsh. (KPRC/

Umusambi Village

For cranes injured or mistreated in the illegal pet trade that couldn’t be released into the wild, RWCA created Umusambi Village. The restored wetland area is a sanctuary for dozens of grey crowned cranes. Just minutes from the busy city of Kigali, it also gives locals and tourists a beautiful and relaxing place to see and learn about the birds.

The nearly 52-acre nature reserve has walking trails, educational signs, a greenhouse for trees being grown for habitat restoration, and a butterfly house. Everything that goes into creating a healthy environment is being addressed at Umusambi Village.

A butterfly lands on a plant in the butterfly house at Umusambi Village (KPRC/

It’s also where the Houston Zoo has helped Nsengimana and RWCA establish a wildlife veterinary clinic. Members of the Houston Zoo veterinary team were in the KPRC 2 travel group to Rwanda. They hauled portable ultrasound and x-ray equipment, along with many additional cases of medical gear, from Houston to Rwanda.

In addition to helping RWCA staff set up the clinic, the Houston Zoo team did hands on training to teach RWCA vets how to use the equipment on animals like fish and toads to cranes and zebras.

A veterinarian with the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association does a health check on a grey crowned crane during a training session with members of the Houston Zoo's veterinary team (KPRC/

Saving Zebras

In its less than a decade of existence, RWCA has developed strong partnerships with the Rwandan government and the country’s national parks. Akagera National Park is one of the oldest parks in all of Africa, but when a fence was put in as a barrier about ten years ago, several zebra were locked out. Conflict between the animals and farmers occurred as the zebras damaged crops. Some zebras also have been hurt outside of the park after being caught in snares.

RWCA was called in to work with Akagera National Park on a solution. At the time of our trip in 2023, they had begun to immobilize zebra, examine them, and then transport them into a quarantine area until the animals were cleared to release in the 277,000 acre park.

A sedated zebra is transported into the protected grounds of Akagera National Park (KPRC/
Akagera National Park, Rwanda (KPRC2/

Saving animals in the wild with the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo has 33 conservation projects in 17 countries that are focused on saving animals in the wild. Their work is possible due to the support of Houstonians who visit the zoo, buy memberships, or make gift shop purchases. The money raised helps the Houston Zoo provide planning and financial guidance, veterinary expertise, and other support for dozens of its conservation partners around the globe, including RWCA.

To learn more about global conservation initiatives the Houston Zoo and Houstonians support, check out the Houston Zoo’s interactive conservation map and learn more on

KPRC 2's Andy Cerota and new friends from the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association and the Houston Zoo celebrate a busy week with live music before the KPRC and Houston Zoo teams headed back to the United States. (Houston Zoo, Linsey Whitehead)

Watch KPRC’s entire “Saving Wildlife” series produced in partnership with the Houston Zoo

About the Authors

Sports mom, amateur nature photographer, and regional Emmy award-winning television producer

Award-winning journalist, adventure seeker, explorer, dog lover.

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