National Parks in Rwanda
NATIONAL PARKS IN RWANDA
Rwanda today has three main conservation areas: the Volcanoes Park, Akagera Park and ecosystem and combination of large mammals, for which reason greater detail on the fauna of each reserve is given under the appropriate regional section. However Akagera supports a typical savanna fauna dominated by a variety of antelope, other grazers such as zebra, buffalo and giraffe, the aquatic hippopotamus and plains predators such as lion, leopard and spotted hyena.
Nyungwe Forest and Volcanoes Park probably supported a similar range of large mammals 500 years ago. Today however the faunas defer, mostly as a result of extensive deforestation on the lower slopes of theVirungas. The volcanoes today support bamboo specialist such as golden monkey and mountain gorilla, as well as relic populations of habitat – tolerant species such as buffalo and elephant.
There are three national parks in Rwanda. Nyungwe, Akagera, and Volcanoes National Parks.
NYUNGWE FOREST NATIONAL PARK:
Nyungwe is a true rain forest, typically receiving in excess of 2, 000 mm of precipitation annuary. It is also one of the oldest forests in Africa, which is one of the reason it boasts such a high level of diversity. Scientific opinion is that Nyungwe, along with other forests of the Albertine Rift, was largely unaffected by the drying up of the lowland areas during the last ice age, and thus become a refuge for forest plants and animals which have subsequently recolonised areas such as the Congo Basin. 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, o the boarder with Burundi and the DRC, and surely one of the undiscovered gems of African environmental tourism.
Ranging between 1,600 and 2,950 meters in altitude, the park is contiguous with Kibira National Park in Burundi, together with 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 as its area by 1984, when a coordinated forest-protection plan was implemented. It was elevated to national park status in March 2004.
Tourist activities in Nyungwe National Park
Nyungwe is probably one of the most important bird watching destination in Rwanda with more than 280 bird species recorded of which the majority are forest specialists and 26 are regional endemics whose range is restricted to a few forests along the Albertine Rift. You don’t have to be an ardent birdwatcher to appreciate some of Nyungwe’s birds. Most people for instance, will do a double – take when they first spot a great blue turaco, a chicken – sized bird with garish blue, green and yellow feathers, often seen gliding between the trees along the main road; the paradise flycatcher, along tailed blue, orange and (sometimes) white bird often seen around the rest house. Other birds impress with their bizarre appearance – the gigantic forest hornbills, for instance, whose wailing vocalizations are almost as comical as their ungainly bills and heavy – winged flight.
Chimpanzee tracking in Nyungwe.
The Rwandan chimp population of at least 500 individuals is now thought to be confined to Nyungwe national park (including a small community in the Cyamudongo Forest), but it remains faintly possible that a small population recorded in the early 1990’s in the more northerly and badly degraded Gishwati forest still persists.
During the rainy season, a troop of chimpanzees often moves into Uwinka and the coloured trail as well, and it is up to you to decide whether to pay extra to track them. .
Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees don’t live in troops, but instead form extended communities of up to a hundred individuals, which roam the forest in small socially mobile sub groups that often revolve around a few close family members such as brothers or a mother and daughter. Male chimps normally spend their entire life within the community into which they were born, where as females are likely to migrate into a neighbouring community at some point after reaching adolescence.
The thirteen primate species which occur in Nyungwe represent something like 20-25% of the total number in Africa, a phenomenal figure which in east Africa is comparable only to Uganda’s Kibale forest.
The most celebrated of Nyungwe’s primates is the Ruwenzori colobus a race of the more wide spread Angola colobus which is restricted to the Albertine Rift. The Ruwenzori colobus is highly arboreal and acrobatic leaf-eater, easily distinguished from any other primate found in Nyungwe by its contrasting black over all colour and snow-white whiskers, shoulders and tail tip. Although all colobus monkeys are very sociable, the ones in Nyungwe are unique in so far as they typically move in troops of several hundred animals. A semi-habituated troop of 400, resident in the forest around the campsite, is though to be the largest troop of arboreal primates anywhere in Africa- else where in the world, only the Chinese golden monkey moves in groups of a comparable number. Most of the other monkeys in Nyungwe are guenons, the collective name for the taxonomically confusing cercopithecus genus.
Other types of monkeys in Nyungwe National Park are the L’Hoest’s monkey, Silver monkey, golden monkey, Owl faced monkey, red tailed monkey, Dent’s Mona monkey, crowned monkey, Vervet monkey, and Olive baboon which is a savanna monkey that is occasionally seen along the road through Nyungwe, Grey-cheeked mangabey is an arboreal monkey of the forest interior.
In addition to the chimpanzees and monkeys, Nyungwe harbors four types of prosimian, small nocturnal primates more closely related to the lemurs of Madagascar than to any other primates of the African main land. These are three species of bush baby or galago (group of tiny, hyper active wide – eyed insectivores) and the sloth – like potto. All are very unlikely to be encountered by tourists.
A large selection of walking possibilities and other excursions is available within Nyungwe .Visitors with sufficient vehicles and interest could easily keep themselves busy for three or four days without significantly retracing their steps. The opinions for travelers without private transport are more limited and depend on whether they base themselves at Uwinka campsite (where the main attraction is the network of colored trails, a good place for colobus and seasonally for chimps), or at the rest house (the best base for the water fall trail and for visiting the colobus in Gisakura tea estate). In the dry season you need a private vehicle to go chimp tracking wherever you are based and at all times of year you need a vehicle to visit the harbituated grey-cheeked mangabey troop and to explore the road to Rangiro. The forest trails are steep and often very slippery. Dress accordingly; jeans a thick skirt and good walking shoes are the ideal out fit, and water proof jacket will be useful during the rainy season.
Nyungwe Park has a number of trails;
Uwinka and the coloured trail. A relic of an early attempt to develop Nyungwe for tourism, back in the late 1980’s, a net work of seven walking trails, each designated by a particular colour leads down hill from the Uwinka campsite into the surrounding forested hills. Ranging in length from the 1 km Grey Trail to the 10 km Red Trail, the footpaths are all well maintained and clearly marked, but don’t under estimate the steepness of the slopes or after – rain – the muddy Trails pass through the territory of habituated troop of 400 colobus monkeys. During the rainy season, a troop of chimpanzees often moves into this area as well, and it is up to you to decide whether to pay extra to track them.
You can reasonably expect to see some primates along any of the coloured Trails as well as a good variety of forest birds – though the latter require patience and often stops where there are open views into the canopy. Unless you opt for specific primate visit, chance will be the decisive factor in what you see, though the 2.5 km Blue Trail is regarded as especially good for primates and birds, while the 10 km Red Trail is good for chimpanzees and passes four water falls.
Birdwatchers in particular are advised to explore the main road close to the campsite, as they will probably see a wider variety of birds than from within the forest. About 500m east of the campsite, the road offers some stunning views over the frosted valleys, and passes a stand of giant lobelias.
The Waterfall Trail. This superb trail starts at the ORPTN Rest house and takes between three and six hours to cover as a round trip, depending on how often you stop and whether you drive or walk from the rest house. The first part of the trail- in essence following the road to the car park-passes through the rolling tea plantations doted with relict forest patches which are worth scanning closely for silver and other monkeys. These small stands of forest can also be rewarding for birds; keen ornithologists might well want to take them slowly, and could perhaps view this session view this section of the trail as worthy bird watching excursion in its own right.
The Trail then descends into the forest proper, following flat contour paths through a succession of tree-fern-covered ravines, and crossing several streams, before a sharp descent to the base of the pretty but small waterfall. Monkeys are often seen along the way (The Angola colobus seems to be particularly common) and the steep slopes allow good views into the canopy. This trail can be very rewarding for true forest interior birds, with a good chance of sporting of Albertine Rift endemics such as Ruwenzori turaco and yellow – eyed black flycatcher.
Gisakura Tea Estate. A relict forest patch in this tea estate, only 20 minutes’ walk from the ORTPN Rest house, supports a resident troop of around 40 Ruwenzori colobus monkeys. This troop is very, far more so than the larger troop at Uwinka, and the relatively small territory the monkeys occupy makes them very easy to locate and to see clearly. Oddly, a solitary red – tailed monkey moves with the colobus, and has done so far at least six years. Some of the guides say it is treated as the leader.
Other guides may tell you the odd monkey out at Gisakura is not a red-tailed but a Mona (also known as Dent’s monkey and unlikely to be observed elsewhere in east Africa) or a hybrid red-tailed / Mona. The apparent cause of this confusion is that a solitary Mona monkey does spend some of its time in the same forest parch, and the guides are unable to distinguish it from the red-tailed cousin.
Particularly in the early morning, a relict forest patch is also an excellent bird watching site, since it lies in a ravine and is encircled by a road, making it easy to deep into the canopy. Most of what you see are forest fringe or woodland species(as opposed to interior forest birds), but numerically this proved to be the most rewarding spot in Nyungwe, with some 40 species identified in an hour, notably black-throated apalis, paradise and white-tailed crested flycatcher, Chubb’s cisticola, African golden oriole, olive-green cameroptera, three types of sun bird, two greenbuls and two crimson-wings.
Note that a visit to this forest patch is treated as a primate walk by the ORTPN office and a corresponding fee is charged.
Other Trails for those spending more time in the forest, the 4 km, 3 hour Kamiranzovu Trail leads to a quite different ecosystem, a relatively low-lying marshy area rich in orchids (particularly during the rainy season) and localized swamp-associated bird species. This used to be the best place to see Nyungwe’s elephants, but none has been sighted here in recent years. The trail starts with a steep descent from the main tar road about 12 km from Uwinka and 6 km from Gisakura.
Bigugu trail leads to the 2,950 m Bigugu peak, which is the highest point in Nyungwe national park. Suitable only for the reasonably fit walkers, the trail starts about 4 km from Uwinka along the Huye(the trail is clearly marked) and it usually takes at least six hours to complete. For geographers a fresh water spring on mount Bigugu has further significance as possibly the most remote source of the world’s longest river.
Costs can mount up at Nyungwe, with all the possibilities, so plan carefully and check before hand in case of increases. An entrance fee of US$20 per person per day is charged for the non residents and foreign residents and foreign residents. The cost for chimpanzee tracking is US$50 for non-residents or US$30 for resident foreigners, while other guided walks cost US$30 per person for non-residents or US$15 for resident foreigners (with substantial discounts available to children under the age of 15).
Residents of Rwanda pay an entrance fee of Rfr2,000-4,000 per person for the various guided walks. If you appreciate the guides’ work, you are free to tip them.
AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK :
Named after the river which runs along its eastern boundary, Akagera National Park is Rwanda’s answer to the famous Savanna reserves of Kenya, Tanzania and the like. In contrast to the rest of the country, the area is relatively warm and low-lying, and its undulating plains support a cover of dense, broad-leafed woodland interspersed with lighter acacia woodland and patches of rolling grassland studded evocatively with stands of the superficially cactus-like Euphorbia candelabra shrub.
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Volcanoes National Park is the Rwanda Gorilla Safaris Destination. This 160km² national park protects the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Mountains, range of six extinct and three active volcanoes which straddles the borders with Uganda and the DRC. The Volcanoes Park is part of a contiguous 433km² Trans frontier conservation unit that also includes the Virungas National Park and Mgahinga National Park, which protects the DRC and Ugandan sectors of the Virungas respectively. The three national parks are managed separately today ( that is if the word “managed can be applied to any park in the DRC at the time of writing). Prior to 1960, however, the Volcanoes and Virungas Parks together formed the Albert National Park.
Under Belgian colonization, the Albert National Park was established by the decree of 21 April 1925 in the triangle (considered a gorilla sanctuary ) formed by the Karisimbi, Mikeno and Visoke volcanoes. At the time of its creation it was the first national park in Africa to be known as such. The institute dup arc national Albert was created by decree on 9 July 1929. A further decree on 12 November 1935 determined the final boundaries of the Albert National Park, then covering 809,000ha. About 8% of the park lay in what is now Rwanda and today constitutes the Volcanoes National Park, while the rest was in the Congo. At the time of independence, Rwanda’s new leaders confirmed that they would maintain the (the mountain gorillas were already well known international) despite the pressing problem of overpopulation.
Ranging in altitude from 2400km to 4,507 the Volcanoes National Park is dominated by the setting of volcanoes after which it is named. This chain of steep, all free standing mountains linked by fertile saddles which were formed by solidified lava flows , is one of the most stirring and memorable sights in East Africa . The tallest mountain in the chain, and the most westerly part of the national park, is Karisimbi on the border with the DRC. Moving eastward, the other main peaks within the national park are Visoke on the DRC border; Sabinyo at the juncture of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, and Gahinga and Muhabura on the Uganda border.
The Volcanoes National Park is best known to the outside world as the place where for almost 20yrs the American primatologist Dian Fossey under took her pioneering studies of mountain gorilla behaviour. It is largely thanks to Fossey’s single-mindedness that poaching was curtailed while there were still some gorillas to save. For her dedication , Fossey would pay the ultimate price still some gorillas still unsolved – murder at the Karisoke Research Centre in December 1985 is generally thought to have been the work of one of the many poachers with whom she crossed swords in her efforts to save her gorillas.
Three years after her death, Fossey’s life work was exposed to a mass audience with the release of Gorilla in the mist, a cinematic account of her life filmed on location in the Volcanoes Park. Gorilla in the Mist drew global attention to the plight of the mountain gorilla and generated unprecedented interest in the gorilla tourism programme that had been established in the park some ten years earlier. In 1990, the
Volcanoes Park was the best organised and most popular gorilla sanctuary in Africa and gorilla tourism was probably Rwanda’s leading earner of tourist revenue.
The wheels came off in February 1992, when the park headquarters were attached, two park employees were killed, and the research centre established by Dian Fossey had to be evacuated. The park reopened to tourism in June 1993, but it was evacuated in April 1994 because of the genocide. In late 1995, it once again reopened to tourism, only to close again a few months later. Gorilla tracking was finally resumed on a permanent basis in July 1999, since when the number of tourists visiting the Virungas has increased rapidly. More details of gorillas and gorilla-tracking follow later in this section.
Gorillas and golden monkeys aside, primates are poorly represented by comparison with other forests in Rwanda and Western Uganda. Little information is available regarding the current status of other large mammals, but 70-plus species have been recorded in Uganda’s neighbouring Mgahinga National Park, most of which probably only occur in the larger Rwanda section of the Virungas. Elephant and buffalo are still quite common; judging by the amount of spoor encountered on forest trails, but is very timid and infrequently observed. Also present are giant forest hog, bush pig, bushbuck, black-fronted duiker, spotted hyena, and several varieties of small predator. Recent extinctions, probably as a result of deforestation, include the massive yellow-backed duiker and leopard.