Nyungwe forest became a reserved area in 1903 but protection wasn’t strictly enforced until it was declared a national park in 2005. As a result, its biodiversity suffered the devastating effects of human encroachment for over a century.
For a long time, surrounding communities relied on the forest for food, firewood, building materials and medicine, to name but a few. Over time, some animals were hunted and poached into oblivion. The last buffalo to call Nyungwe home was killed in 1974 while the last elephant was killed in 1999. Its skull is exhibited at Uwinka Interpretation Center.
A study conducted by Antioch University revealed that Nyungwe lost 150 km2 of its cover between 1958 and 1973. Parts of Kitabi, Gisakura and Nkungu, among other areas, were shaved off during this time.
Despite huge losses, Nyungwe is still home to a quarter of Africa’s primates. The park’s vegetation is a collection of more than 1,000 plant species, most of which can’t be found outside the Albertine Rift. More than 90 mammal species inhabit the forest. In addition, Nyungwe is the biggest protected area in the Albertine Rift and home to 25% of all birds in its ecosystem. That says a lot considering the rift contains 52% of all birds in Africa.
Today, communities surrounding the park are actively involved in conservation. After years of creating awareness and extending the economic benefits of tourism to the people, it finally makes sense to protect natural resources as opposed to depleting them.
One week ago, the government handed over managerial duties of Nyungwe National Park to African Parks, following the signing of a 20-year agreement. African Parks has been managing Akagera National Park for the past 10 years. The decade-long partnership has seen Rwanda’s only Savannah national park undergo an impressive ecological and economic revival.
Commenting on the new partnership, RDB’s CEO, Clare Akamanzi said, "The new agreement with African parks is a testament to the good partnership we have built with African Parks over the past 10 years. We look forward to making Nyungwe National Park a more spectacular place to visit by advancing wildlife management and conservation, expanding tourism infrastructure and increasing tourism marketing and promotion. We also look forward to a collaborative working relationship with communities around the park."
Like Nyungwe, Akagera’s turbulent history led to the extermination of some animals. Lately, some of the lost creatures have been reintroduced. Whether the same will be done in Nyungwe remains to be seen. One thing is clear though; the future of Nyungwe National Park is bright.
The skull of the last elephant in Nyungwe forest is a painful reminder of the dark chapter in history of the forest. In retrospect, it is an exhibition of the closeness of the past in the attraction that has moved so far away from that past.