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. Illegal hunting and poaching were rampant. The last buffalo to call Nyungwe home was killed in 1974 while the last elephant was killed in 1999.
A study conducted by Antioch University revealed that Nyungwe lost 150 km² of its cover between 1958 and 1973. Parts of Kitabi, Bushekeri and Gisovu, 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 cover is a collection of more than 1,000 plant species, most of which can’t be found outside the Albertine Rift. In addition, more than 90 mammal species inhabit the forest. 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.
Last year, the government handed over Nyungwe’s managerial duties to African Parks, following the signing of a 20-year agreement. African Parks has been managing Akagera National Park for over a decade. This partnership has seen Rwanda’s only Savannah national park undergo an impressive ecological and economic revival.
We have witnessed the reintroduction of formerly wiped out animals in Akagera National Park. Whether the same will be done in Nyungwe remains to be seen. One thing is clear though: The future of both parks is bright.
Exhibited at Uwinka Interpretation Center, 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 it.
The author is an adventurer on a mission to discover what Rwanda has to offer. His tour of Nyamasheke is sponsored by Nyamasheke District, The Click Creations, Tec Global Ltd, Elimo Real Estate Ltd and Exposure.