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Home arrow Rwanda's Hidden Gem

nyungwe national park

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The Undiscovered Gem-source The eye Magazine Rwanda
One of the central planks in ORTPN’s tourism-diversification programme is Nyungwe National Park, 980 Square kilometers of hilly jungle cloaked terrain in the country’s south-west, on the border with Burundi and the DRC, and surely one of the undiscovered gems of African environmental tourism.
Ranging between 1,600 and 2,950 metres in altitude, the park is contiguous with Kibira National Park in Burundi, and together the two protected areas form the largest block of forest in East Africa. Nyungwe was originally set aside as a reserve in 1933, which, although relatively effective, still saw it lose about 20 per cent of its area by 1984, when a coordinated forest-protection plan was implemented. It was elevated to national park status in March 2004.
The largest tract of montane forest in East and Central Africa, Nyungwe is also one of the oldest forests in Africa, which probably goes at least part of the way to explaining its incredible biodiversity.
When the lowlands dried out during the last ice age, Nyungwe was apparently largely unaffected, acting as a refuge for numerous rainforest species. The park’s large altitudinal range, as well as its habitat diversity – which takes in montane rainforest, extensive stands of bamboo, grasslands and swamps – also helps to explain its biological richness.

Nyungwe is home to 86 mammal species, including 13 primates, a quarter of Africa’s total. These of course, include chimps – which occur there at the highest altitudes known for the species – but there are also large social groups of Angolan Colobus that can include more than 400 individuals: the largest aggregations of this species known in the world. There are also 43 reptile species and 31 amphibians, half of which are endemics. The forests contain more than 1,100 plant species, including more than 100 species of orchid and at least 200 tree species. The latter are represented by magnificent old specimens that can reach heights of more than 60 metres. There is an extensive system of walking trails that radiate out into the forest from a small visitor’s centre at Uwinka, including one that winds up to the summit of Bigugu Mountain, the highest peak in the forest. But visitors don’t just want to wander trails looking at big trees – they want to see animals, and in rainforest, that can be pretty tricky. To make matters worse, the animals that many visitors to Nyungwe want to see are primates, which typically beat a hasty retreat when they hear someone coming. Hence, part of the development process for the park involves the habituation of groups of primates. At present, six species are in the process of being, or already have been, habituated for tourism: chimps, grey-cheeked mangabeys, blue monkeys, Angolan Colobus, L’hoest’s monkeys and owl faced monkeys.
In the case of the chimps, two trackers follow a particular group every day, using GPS units to record their movements and gathering data on their feeding and mating activity. The hope is that by following them every day, the chimps will get used to the presence of humans. The trackers carry two-way radios with them at all times, which also helps the park’s guides to find them – vastly improving the chances that visitors will make a sighting. Slightly more easily seen are the park’s birds. Nyungwe’s steep hills, as well as a road that cuts through the forest, allow relatively easy views of the canopy, making the park ideal for bird tourism.
At least 280 species can be seen, including 26 of the so-called Albertine Rift Endemics – more than any other site in East Africa. The avian highlight is surely the great blue Turaco – an outlandish blue, red and green bird that has been described as looking like a streamlined psychedelic turkey.
Given this avian richness, it’s unsurprising that birding has become a focus for ORTPN. “In the past our message was very generic – come and visit Akagera National Park, come and visit the Virunga, come and visit Nyungwe”, says Rugamba. “But now we’ll be saying, come and go bird watching in the three national parks. We’re producing targeted materials, our guides have been trained and we’ve bought binoculars and other equipment. We’ve also formed a birding association in Kigali”.
However, despite the increased level of protection and the park’s importance to tourism, it still faces a number of threats. Poaching has always been a problem – buffalo and elephants were common in the forest in pre-colonial times, the former were hunted out during the 1980’s and the latter followed suit in 1999 – but became even worse following the genocide, when the security infrastructure was in tatters. As a result populations of many of the park’s other large mammals declined, in particular the Duikers and Bush pigs.
There is a belief among some of the park’s managers that the loss of these large herbivores is having a knock-on effect on Nyungwe’s vegetation. A creeper has begun to spread over wide areas, choking other plants – and there are some who believe that this is due to the removal f the herbivore’s controlling influence.
Human encroachment is also a problem, as is small–scale mining for gold and columbo-tantalite. However, the greatest threat appears to come from fire. In the past, fires generally only occurred during the El Nino years, but they are becoming more frequent and have destroyed large areas of the forest. They are typically started by local honey collectors, who use fire to smoke the bees from their hives.

Awesome potential
Nyungwe is crying out for development. At present, most of the available accommodation is either a long way from the park or pretty basic. For years, the only options for visitors have been……basic guesthouse at the park headquarters among the tea plantations at Gisakura, or hotels at Cyangugu, about an hour’s drive from the park.
Visitor numbers have never really reflected the park’s awesome potential – at the peak of its popularity in 1989, it only had 2,896 visitors. To get an insight into Nyungwe’s obscurity, you just have to take a walk our through the tea plantations. It quickly becomes clear that white faces are still an unusual sight around here. My traveling companion actually managed to make a young child cry simply by walking past her home – apparently, hers was the first white face the girl had seen. People tend to look a little wary as you approach, but a smile and a greeting in the local language usually brings a huge grin in response.
ORTPN is clearly aware of the need to develop Nyungwe, but it’s wisely taking things slowly. A few years ago, Rugamba began calling in investors to set up hotels in the park. However she quickly realized that she didn’t really know what she was doing, so she stopped and called in a consultant to assess the available options and advise her on where and how to build hotels.
“With ecotourism, you can’t go back – you only have one chance to get it right”, she says. The consultation process is now over and plans are under way for a new 12 room high-end lodge. While I was staying at Gisakura, I took a look at the visitor’s book. Going back several years, I couldn’t find anyone who had stayed for longer than my own five-day visit. This, again, is an issue that ORTPN is addressing. “Our current emphasis is on increasing the length of people’s stay by developing new products,” says Rugamba.
With this in mind, ORTPN is looking for other attractions around Nyungwe.
During my visit, I was accompanied by an ORTPN representative, Jane Sebujisho, who was visiting the area to assess the available options. First cab off the rank is the local tea factory. “Tourists are already going there, but there isn’t an organized tour.” Sebujisho explained. Her job now is to convince the factory’s owners to set up regular tours with dedicated guides.

Ownership from the top
The signs for Rwanda’s tourism revolution appear to be positive. ORTPN has attracted several foreign donors and Rugamba recently announced that it’s now self-sufficient – one of the few public institutions in Rwanda that no longer depends on government funding.
And attempts to increase the length of visitor’s stays are already bearing fruit. In 2004, the average length of stay was around four days, but by the next year, it had already jumped to seven days – the level that ORTPN had hoped to reach by 2010. Visitor numbers also appear to be rising. In 2000, Rwanda’s three national parks welcomed a grand total of 3,799 visitors. By last year, the number had swelled to just over 24,000.
The growth in both lengths of stay and visitor numbers is at least in part due to an increase in the number of tour operators listing Rwanda in their brochures. This process has been helped along by ORTPN. “We’ve targeted specific tour operators from specific countries,” Rugamba explains. “We knew that tourism in East Africa was growing by about 15 per cent per year when we started our strategy in 2002. So we went to our neighbors – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – and sad, “add Rwanda to your holidays,” and it worked like magic”.  
Rugamba believes that one of the reasons why the tourism-development strategy has been so successful is that the top levels of government have been involved. “It was decided by the government, it was signed off by the cabinet and then it was handed over to us to implement,” she says. “Having ownership from the top really helps, because when you go back to them and tell them that its working, they feel proud. When they don’t have ownership, they don’t understand what’s happening. And the government is still very committed to tourism, because for us, it’s an image builder, part of the reconciliation process”.
Traveling around Rwanda, it’s obvious that the locals take great pride in their country. Having spent quite a bit of time in the developing world, I’ve learnt that litter is pretty much a staple. However, in Rwanda, once you leave the capital it’s almost completely non-existent.
This pride is beginning to translate into a warm welcome offered to visitors to the country, the people themselves becoming de facto ambassadors, helping to ensure that Rwandan tourism has a future beyond the gorillas.

Source: theeye.co.rw The Eye Magazine Rwanda

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