Restoring Africa’s Wetlands: The Rwanda example


African wetlands have become an endangered ecosystem despite the fact they are very critical to the well-being and survival of both human and animal life.

According to the National Geographic Resource Library: a wetland is an area of ​​land that is either covered by water or saturated with water. The water is often groundwater, seeping up from an aquifer or spring. A wetland’s water can also come from a nearby river or lake. Seawater can also create wetlands, especially in coastal areas that experience strong tides.

Wetlands help check floods and prevent erosion because of their capacity to retain excess floodwater during heavy rainfall. Wetlands are also important in increasing biological productivity for both aquatic lives as well as human communities. Wetlands also provide Africa’s major staple foods, such as rice and fish.

Sadly, Africa’s wetlands are constantly threatened by degradation, human invasion, pollution, and over-harvesting, causing declines in biodiversity, food security, water quality and quantity.

Africa has many important wetlands, including four which have been listed as world heritage sites; The Banc D’Arguin National Park in Mauritania, the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary in Senegal, the Ichkeul National Park in Tunisia and the Isimangaliso St Lucia wetland park.

While several African countries have wetlands that may not be named world heritage sites just yet, they are immensely important to the country’s ecological and economic survival.

Despite challenges like lack of conservation education and resources across the continent, Rwanda’s wetlands are thriving and proving that with deliberate effort, the right policies, education and commitment, Africa can save her endangered wetlands, protect the ecosystem and mitigate against climate change.

So how has Rwanda been able not just to preserve her wetlands but also to increase the population of biodiversity in the country?

I found the answer to this when I visited the Nyandungu Eco Tourism Park in Kigali.

In 2016, the Government of Rwanda, through the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA), developed the Nyandungu restoration project. Investing RwF 4.5 Billion (Over $ million dollars) to combat biodiversity loss, abate pollution, end degradation as well as develop Eco-tourism.

Since then, Nyandungu wetland is now protected and has been turned into an educational and recreational eco-park while serving as a blueprint for other wetlands across the country.

As Park Manager Peace Mugabo tells me: “This is the first project out of 6 wetlands to be rehabilitated in Kigali City so it will serve as a blueprint for the others to follow”.

Peace Mugabo

“This wetland rehabilitation project is important because of flood control”. she says.

“There used to be lots of flood around here but conserving the wetlands has helped to control the flooding. The wetland has filtration plants that filter the polluted water which provide clean water for people in the community, Our recreational services have also benefited not just the immediate community but the entire city. It is not unusual on weekly days to see people coming to Nyandungu Eco-park for picnics, cycling activities and even the elderly coming here to exercise and enjoy the freshness of nature”.

Dr Joseph Mvukiyumwami; a Botanist, has been a Professor since 1982. He studies traditional medicinal plants that are planted in Nyandungu. according to him; Africa is a treasure trove of medicinal plants and Nyandungu is home to several of these.

We walk around the medicinal plant garden while he shows me plants like Euphorbia Hirta used to treat Asthma, the Plantago Palmata, used to treat conjunctivitis and also has laxative effects, the Cassia Floribunda, for treating intestinal worms among others.

Up to 17,000 plant species have been planted in the park and over 55 of them are indigenous trees. Dr Joseph says.

Dr Joseph Mvukiyumwami

At Umusambi Village, also in Kigali, the restoration project there is quite extensive, covering the rehabilitation of endangered species, restoring biodiversity and tree planting. One of the most notable projects at Umusambi Village is protecting the Gray Crowned Crane.

‘Umusambi’ is the word for Gray Crowned Crane in the Rwandan language, Kinyarwanda.

This crane species is most often recognized for the ‘crown’ of feathers that stand tall on its head. It is a relatively tall bird with long, slender feet that are excellent for balancing in the wetlands where it is commonly found.

The gray crowned crane is naturally found in various countries throughout the continent, including Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

Their beauty and elegance have inadvertently led to these birds becoming endangered as people desired to domesticate them.

The Gray Crowned Crane

Christian Mugabe is the Director of Conservation Enterprise at Umusambi Village. He tells me that traditional Rwandan society used to view the Gray Crowned Cranes as an exotic bird that symbolises the wealth of their owners.

It wasn’t unusual to see wealthy families and hotels attempt to domesticate cranes by chopping off their wings to prevent them from escaping. As a result, the population of the grey-crowned cranes dwindled, and a lot of the birds still remaining were disabled.

Christian says Umusambi Village has rescued and provided sanctuary for over 50 endangered Gray Crowned Cranes saved from the illegal pet trade.

“After rehabilitation, we release the cranes that are able to fly into the national park to thrive in their natural habitat. But we keep the ones unable to fly here. Some free flying cranes also come here to visit and in the process, the breed to with our cranes and reproduce. When the chicks are hatched and able to fly in two months, they are also released to fly out.”

“Cranes are monogamous. They usually breed with one partner until one of them dies. Incubating an egg is also a joint effort. Both make and female cranes sit on the egg and it takes 28 days for the egg to hatch” Christian explains.

Boat anist and researcher; Winnie Kyamujara says:

“We wanted a safe place where we can put them to rehabilitate them so they can re-breed and multiply. We work on cranes because they are endangered and we wanted to see if we could increase the population of cranes in Rwanda. We did a census before we started and we discovered that in the entire country, we had just over 500 Gray Crowned cranes. Some of the them have been able to re-breed, and their offsprings can fly and come back. The amazing thing is that some free range cranes who do not live within the park, fly in and breed with the cranes we are rehabilitating. This has really helped to increase the population.”

Umusambi is not just about the cranes though. In the park, there are 136 different species of birds. Winnie says.

“We have other conservation activities that we do. Such as habitat restoration, where we plant indigenous trees in different parts of the country, to increase our wildlife population and also mitigate against climate change.”

Restoring the marshlands is also an important project at Umusambi Village. They help collect rainwater and during the dry season, water is available for farming in the community. All thanks to the preserved marshland, says Christian.

“The marsh is a home to several small animals; toads, frogs, lizards, small insects and birds that help keep the balance in the ecosystem” He says.

Director of Conservation Enterprise at Umusambi; Christian Mugabe

Community Engagement

Umusambi Village is a social enterprise, serving the community by providing job opportunities, serving as an educational platform to teach Rwanda’s young population about conservation and attracting researchers from several institutions of higher learning while serving as a tourist attraction for nature lovers and bird watchers.

Winnie says: “We work with the community by hiring casual workers who help us restore the park and plant native trees. We also employ permanent staff who are paid on a monthly basis. The restorative work we do at Umusambi has also helped educate the local community about the benefits of conservation and how the environment benefits, these lessons are in turn passed down to the children thus, educating the next generation and getting everyone involved”.

Both Umusambi and Nyandungu parks, fit into Rwanda’s larger conservation project to provide sustainable solutions to critical conservation issues in the country and the East African region at large.

African wetlands have been long ignored and often misused due to a lack of education, mismanagement of resources and lack of decisive leadership. However, countries like Rwanda, taking a leading role in preserving the Ecosystem, will ensure that others recognize that a lot of Africa’s environmental, food security and clean water supply challenges can be solved.

Fola Folayan is a Nigerian Journalist currently on tour in Rwanda. She writes from Kigali. Twitter: @thefavoredwoman

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