Well-known for its long-established gorilla-trekking opportunities, Rwanda is now gaining recognition for the other attractions and experiences it offers. This is helped by major regeneration work being undertaken in its other main parks, including Nyungwe Forest, which is striving to become Africa’s prime rainforest reserve. Ben West paid a visit.
I’d only been in the depths of this lush pocket of southwest Rwanda, the Nyungwe rainforest, for half an hour before I first encountered the chimpanzees. They were lounging over a breakfast of dates in a branch high up above my head, picking them from the tree one by one and munching fastidiously, like some old dame eating luxury Swiss chocolates in Harrods Food Hall.
Of course it was the professional trackers who spotted them first. I was in awe of the vast knowledge of wildlife the four of them shared. One was brandishing a machete, ready to cut through the thick undergrowth as soon as the moment came to set off after the chimps when they decided to move on.
The sight of these fascinating creatures – who share around 98 per cent of our DNA – was spellbinding. The sensation of viewing them was augmented by the cacophony of animal, insect and bird sounds – the liveliest of wildlife soundtracks – and the patches of alternating near darkness and blazing light that the thick vegetation of the rainforest can produce.
I felt incredibly lucky to have encountered the chimps so soon. Although there are more than 500 in the forest – possibly as many as 1000 – sightings are not guaranteed.
Gradually we noticed more and more of them, dotted amongst the trees about 80 feet up, sitting in their nests, which are rather like huge versions of a bird’s nest constructed out of leaves and branches.
With them in the treetops were several white-crested hornbills surveying the scene, and playful little Mona monkeys hopping from branch to branch like impish children.
No doubt there was much more wildlife in the vicinity, considering that Nyungwe, one of the last remaining high-altitude tropical rainforests in Africa, has one of the world’s richest and most diverse ecosystems. There are more than 1080 plant species here, including some 250 Albertine Rift endemics and 200 orchids.
Thirteen species of primate are present, representing 25 per cent of all African species. These include L’Hoest monkeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, and more than a hundred roaming Angolan colobus monkeys.
Other highlights include some 120 species of butterfly and a smattering of both wild and serval cats, side-striped jackals and giant forest hogs. Nyungwe encloses rainforest, bamboo, grassland, swamp and bog, and is thus a paradise for birders: a recent survey showed that it has 303 species, with 27 of them endemic to the Albertine Rift region.
It wasn’t until we had waited for over an hour, with the chimps chattering ever more loudly amongst themselves, that an adult male descended from the trees, affording us a closer look. Soon he was joined by a mother with her baby, and then five more chimps were standing beside them on the forest floor. Within seconds we were on the move, scrambling to keep up.
It was wet and muddy underfoot in places, and two or three of us slipped now and then as we tried to follow as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. My brand new, red-striped, state-of-the-art hiking boots (more like overpriced, glorified trainers in truth) were soon a brown-grey hue. The trackers did fine in simple wellies.
That’s clearly sensible: Nyungwe is Rwanda’s most important water catchment area, supplying around 70 per cent of the country. It receives more than 2000mm of rain annually, and is the source of Africa’s two greatest rivers. Water that falls on the eastern side feeds the Nile, and on the western side the Congo. The Congo-Nile Divide is a mountain range that runs north to south through Rwanda.
I was grateful when at last the chimps stopped in a clearing to feast on leaves and bark, and afford us a rest. I reflected once again on how very fortunate I was to be seeing them in the wild.
The experience was very much made possible by the park’s Nyungwe Nziza (‘Beautiful Nyungwe’) project, which is supported by USAID and international development company DAI. Until recently very few tourists visited the area. The project is working to transform the National Park into a viable ecotourism destination capable of generating employment and a sustainable and equitable income for local communities and other stakeholders. It is intended that this will provide economic incentives to conserve the biodiversity of the park.
A revenue-sharing scheme was introduced in 2005, targeting communities around Nyungwe and Rwanda’s other two national parks, Volcanoes and Akagera. It supports community initiatives to a tune of five per cent of total annual tourism revenue.
“In 2003, Rwanda recognised that tourism was one of the pillars of economic development and that Nyungwe National Park would play a leading role,” says Louis Rugerinyange, Chief Park Warden at Nyungwe. “The government in 2005 elevated Nyungwe to the third national park in Rwanda, after Volcano and Akagera, in order to protect and develop it as a biodiversity hot spot and tourist destination.”
The project hopes increasingly to engage the local community as well as the private sector, encouraging them to see that they can benefit economically by protecting the outstanding Nyungwe environment. It hopes that private business concerns will increasingly invest in the management, construction, and maintenance of new and existing park infrastructure.
“We have built the necessary infrastructure that the park needs in order to flourish, including communications in and around the park, such as walkie talkies, administrative facilities and rangers’ posts,” says Rugerinyange.
The aim is not only to establish Nyungwe as one of Africa’s premier birdwatching and wildlife destinations but also to decrease threats to biodiversity such as fire, poaching, and mining. It is doing this by working with communities to develop alternative sources of income and to increase numbers of visits to the park.
“We have established a community conservation programme whereby we are building relationships with the neighbouring people and supporting community projects through tourism revenue sharing,” says Rugerinyange. “We have been developing nature-based tourism ventures, such as primate habituation, forest camping and forest trails. Introducing public/private partnership through concessions to manage commercial interests in the park, such as accommodation and food and beverage stores, has done much to help the Park’s fortunes grow.
“We have been very successful restoring degraded areas. Twelve per cent of the park has been burned down in the past, but Nyungwe lacks a fire-adapted ecosystem and does not rapidly regenerate. The burned areas are then colonised by Pteridium aquilinum, a fern that grows rapidly and densely from existing rhizomes in the soil. We are piloting a periodic removal of the fern, and this has been shown to enhance forest regeneration.
“We have been eradicating exotic plant species like eucalyptus, cypress, pine, acacia and avocado, which can rapidly take over wide areas of the park. We are removing or treating the target species and carrying out the maintenance required to control regrowth.”
Ranger-based monitoring of the forest has been proving a key tool for the conservation of the park. This simple and cost-effective method for collecting data is used for monitoring ecosystems and helping make park management decisions.
Efforts are boosted by transboundary collaboration through coordinated patrols with Kibira National park in Burundi. Rangers, national police and army personnel from both countries collaborate in the common aim of conservation of their natural habitats.
There are several indications of the way things have improved. For example, the ranger-based monitoring and camera traps in the forest have shown a steady increase in the numbers of animals, especially duikers and bush pigs, which in recent years had almost disappeared; the number of forest fires (which are mostly human-induced) has diminished; there is now a positive attitude from the local community to conservation activities, and the community has actively participated in fire prevention and suppression.
The Park has established tourist attractions that are of great interest to visitors, such as chimpanzee tracking, birdwatching tours and various park walks. A stunning canopy walk 100 metres above the forest – the first of its kind in East Africa, and a wonderful vantage point to view the incredible biodiversity of this rare forest – will further boost visitor numbers.
Amongst the accolades it has garnered so far is The British Guild of Travel Writers top tourism award, the Globe Award. The Guild noted that the project harmonises tourism, wildlife, environmental and agrarian development in one of Africa’s last surviving patches of primeval (pre-Ice Age) rainforests. The Project also won the Phoenix Award of the Society of American Travel Writers for its contributions to ecotourism, biodiversity, and local communities.
“The future for the park is very rosy now,” says Rugerinyange.” Nyungwe has the potential to offer a range of attractions for both nature and adventure visitors. This encourages them to stay longer in the country. There are numerous potential private and public sector tourism investment opportunities through commercial concessions in accommodation.
“Nyungwe serves as a prominent resource laboratory for applying excellence in natural science to understanding and responding to environmental changes, and its ecosystem services, including water supply and carbon sequestration, have the potential to generate large revenues for the park.”
Nyungwe in numbers:
970 sq km
2000 years old
1080+ plant species
200+ tree species
13 primate species
86 mammal species
130km walking trails
50km-long road (Kitabe to Gisakura)
• Getting there KLM flies to Kigali from Heathrow via Amsterdam; Kenya Airways fly from Nairobi (connecting from their global network)
• Accommodation Nyungwe Forest Lodge has a gorgeous location right on the park boundary and within the Gisakura Tea Estate, and is the most luxurious accommodation available. Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel is modern, clean and pleasant, situated high on a hilltop above Gisakura Village. Gisakura Guesthouse is a budget-option guesthouse with clean rooms.
• When to go Being fairly temperate, Rwanda can be visited at any time of year, though the dry seasons (mid-December to mid-February and mid-May to mid-October) are best. The rainy seasons are best for chimpanzee tracking.
• Health A yellow fever international health certificate is obligatory. Your doctor or a specialist travel clinic can also advise which malaria prophylactics and immunisations are essential or recommended. Visit them at least a couple of months in advance, as a course of injections spread over some weeks may be required.
• Further reading Rwanda (Bradt); East Africa (Lonely Planet)
• Tourist info Rwanda Tourism recently launched its Remarkable Rwanda campaign in the UK. For more information visit www.rwandatourism.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org