My tour of Nyamasheke started in Nyungwe National Park. This Western Province district is one of the five districts that share the park. While on this tour, I learned more about Nyungwe and left the area with a newfound appreciation of the forest.
Nyungwe is one of the oldest rainforests in Africa. It has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. During the last Ice Age, many species of animals sought refuge in Nyungwe. When the widespread glaciation hit hard, ice sheets covered not only the north and south poles but also a significant part of the rest of the surface of the earth. Harsh climatic conditions in many parts of the globe caused a wave of wildlife migration. Animals that fled to Nyungwe settled there and never left.
At the same time, many plant species that couldn’t survive the glacial period elsewhere kept flourishing in Nyungwe. That explains the forest’s rich biodiversity in flora and fauna.
However, Nyungwe’s history has been turbulent to say the least. Over the years, the forest has lost a considerable number of both animal and plant species. Although the forest was declared a reserved area in 1903, protection wasn’t strictly enforced. A study conducted by Antioch University revealed that human activities led to the destruction of 150 km² of Nyungwe’s cover between 1958 and 1973.
Before Nyungwe became a national park in 2005, it was subjected to constant encroachment by man for over a century. Population growth around the forest brought forth a new kind of pressure. New settlements emerged at the expense of dense vegetation. Trees were replaced by crops. Hunters did irreparable damage. More trees were chopped off in the process of setting up mining camps and many more were burned by honey harvesters. People relied on the forest for food, firewood, construction materials and medicine.
Historically, man has been hunting in order to put food on the table. In other scenarios, wild animals are killed because they prey on livestock and destroy crops. Cases of illegal export of animals and their body parts such as ivory are also common.
The last buffalo to call Nyungwe home was killed in 1974 while the last elephant was killed in 1999. The latter’s skull, exhibited at Uwinka Interpretation Center, is a painful reminder of that dark chapter in history of the forest.
The area between Nyungwe and Cyamudongo was shaved during this period. Those sprawling tea plantations in Kitabi, Gisakura, Gisovu and Giheke were once part of the forest.
Conflicting interests in land ownership and utilization usually lead to frictions between members of local communities and the authorities responsible for the protection of reserved areas. In most cases, expropriation of land to create national parks doesn’t sit well with the local population.
To manage the inevitable animosity, a new paradigm giving stakes to surrounding communities has emerged. Through tourism, sustainable non-consumptive means of income are created. In this case, parties sharing a common goal are unified to safeguard mutual long-term benefits.
Spurred by the pre-Covid record numbers of travelers traversing the globe, tourism became one of the biggest driving forces behind conservation efforts worldwide. Conservation policies are formulated to ensure nature endures constant human interference.
In Rwanda, the government injects 10% of tourism earnings into development projects designed to benefit communities surrounding the national parks. This initiative was introduced in a bid to extend sustainable economic benefits of tourism to the people. More than Rwf 5 billion has already been spent on a wide range of projects including construction of modern houses, schools, hospitals and community centers.
Revenue sharing is also credited for the provision of clean water and the improvement of agricultural production. In addition, tourism has created jobs and business opportunities for members of the said communities. It finally makes sense to preserve natural resources and biodiversity as opposed to depleting them.
Despite past losses, Nyungwe is still home to habituated chimpanzees and other primate species, including over 350 troops of Ruwenzori colobus and more than 250 species of birds. A wide variety of mammals and reptiles are also found in this recovering forest.
More than 1,000 species of plants are flourishing in Nyungwe. Most of them can’t be found outside the Albertine Rift. This is the largest protected area within the rift and home to 25% of all birds found in its ecosystem. That says a lot considering the Albertine Rift contains 52% of all birds in Africa.
Today, Nyungwe is probably the best preserved rainforest in Africa. Its emergence as one of the region’s leading ecotourism destination is proof that with the right strategy and the implementation of appropriate policies, communities can embrace conservation and shift their focus to sustainable tourism.
The author is visiting all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Nyamasheke is sponsored by Nyamasheke District, The Click Creations, Tec Global Ltd, Elimo Real Estate Ltd and Exposure.