Kigali capital city of Rwanda recently won the Ramsar Wetland City Accreditation award for restoring the 121 hectares of Nyandungu wetland located in Gasabo, the city’s largest district. Now Nyandungu is an Eco-tourism park used for recreation which has improved the quality of life. The park contains fish ponds and herb gardens with over 55 indigenous species. There are bike lanes, walkways, a restaurant, and an information center to learn the truth about Rwanda’s conservation efforts. Not only that, Ecotourism has benefited Rwanda in the restoration of degraded natural areas including wetlands in Kigali’s capital city, the reintroduction of Big Five mammals in Akagera National Park, and the development of the new Gishwati Mukura National Park canopy walk in Nyungwe Forest. It also contributed to the conservation of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.
The biodiversity of Rwanda was mostly destroyed during and after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in which over 800,000 people died in a civil war that lasted 100 days. The economy was also shut down to a large extent so rebuilding thereafter almost started from scratch. Given that Rwanda has relatively few natural resources, she mostly relies on foreign funding for overall socioeconomic development.
Eco-tourism in Rwanda aims at restoring degraded areas and conserving them for future generations. The emphasis has also been put on the development of high-end tourism based on mountain gorilla trekking safaris in Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda gorilla permit cost was increased from $750 to $1500 in 2017 as a strategy to attract luxury travelers while minimizing pressure on the natural habitat. Gorilla tourism generated $164m in 2021 and the money has always been put to good use to protect gorillas and their habitats through law enforcement and empowering local communities adjacent to the park. It’s reported that poaching and encroachment in Rwanda no longer exist given that many former poachers now benefit from tourism through employment and selling their arts and crafts to visitors. This has paved the way for the forest to regenerate and the population of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area to increase from 480 in 2010 to 604 according to the Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP).
Expansion of mountain gorilla habitat
The rising gorilla numbers put primates to exert pressure on their habitat whose size never expands accordingly. Thus they end up marauding in the surrounding local communities. As a result of increased human-gorilla contact, there has been transmission of parasitic worms which were found in gorilla fecal samples according to a study “Ecological drivers of helminth infection
patterns in the Virunga Massif Mountain Gorilla population.” Gorillas share 98% DNA with humans which exposes them to the risk of contracting infectious diseases including influenza, Ebola and Covid-19.
With this underlying threat to gorillas, Rwanda has embarked on a plan to expand Volcanoes National Park by 23% which shall add 37.4 square kilometers (3,740 hectares). Although many people will be displaced, it’s hoped to create enough space and relieve the gorillas from confinement. Gorillas are highly protected because the revenue generated from gorilla trekking drives economic development in Rwanda. Besides, gorillas are endangered species and can’t be found anywhere else on earth thus they must be protected for future generations. Continuous education has cultivated a culture of responsible people. Some of the lodges such as the Wilderness Bisate encourage their guests to visit their tree nurseries and plant trees.
Restoration of Big Five in Akagera National Park
Another example of Rwanda’s conservation efforts is the restoration of the Big 5 mammals including lions, black and white rhinos, elephants, and buffaloes in Akagera National Park. The park is 108 km (3-hour drive) east of Kigali’s capital city. The country’s only savanna-protected area once covered 2,500 sq. km (970 sq. miles) at the time it was established by the colonial government in 1934. It contains diverse habitats including savanna, tropical forests, a large wetland, and several lakes such as Ihema that are formed by the Akagera River which flows through the eastern edge into Lake Victoria. However, the park’s size was reduced to 1,122 sq.km as a refugee influx occupied part of the park. For some time poaching and encroachment in the form of subsistence cultivation and charcoal burning led to the loss of habitat and biodiversity. By the year 2007, the population of over 250 lions, 50 black rhinos, and an unknown number of African wild dogs that once roamed the area were extinct. Many wild animals such as giraffes and antelope species including impala, bushbucks, elands, duikers, oribi were still being poached for bushmeat.
Forasmuch as the government realized the harm to wildlife, it set forth a long-term management plan between Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the African Parks Network (APN) which came into effect in 2010. The dream to put the park back in its former state has over the years turned into a reality. Several measures were taken into consideration including putting a 120 km (74.6 miles) fence on the eastern boundary and a well-trained anti-poaching ranger force. Akagera rangers are equipped with dogs to track poachers and helicopter surveillance. Effective law enforcement, security, and good management of the park is the pillar upon which the restoration of wildlife rests. With support from the government of South Africa, the first 14 lions were reintroduced in 2017 of which 5 were donated by &Beyond and 2 males came from Tembe Elephant Park in Kwazulu Natal. This was followed by 21 black rhinos of which 18 came from South Africa and 3 were shipped from European zoos including Ree Park Safari (Denmark), Dvur Kralove (Czech Republic), and Flamingo in the UK. Lastly, the most recent translocation involved 30 southern white rhinos that were delivered to Rwanda again from Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
The African Parks survey conducted in 2021 indicates that lions have increased from 14 to 37 in just 7 years. Indeed, Akagera has returned to its original state and is one of the best places to see the Big Five animals on safari in East Africa. You can see the Big Five in Rwanda. Wildlife safaris have resulted in the establishment of several accommodations in Akagera, including Ruzizi Tented Lodge and Karenge Bush Camps which are operated by the park. Before the covid-19 pandemic, Akagera received over 44,0000 visitors raising hopes that the park can sustain itself in the future.
The Gishwati Mukura Ecotourism project
Many people, after the genocide permanently settled there for farming as their major economic activity. What was once a single large forest was eventually bisected into two parts. Due to human encroachment, the loss of habitat put at risk the rich biodiversity including over 8 primate species such as chimpanzees, golden, L’hoest, and blue monkeys; small mammal species such as side-striped jackals and golden cats; and over 120 species of birds. Owing to public outcry over environmental degradation and the need to protect wildlife, Rwanda Development Board was compelled to establish Gishwati Mukura National Park in 2015. The permanent settlements of over 337,782 people living adjacent to the park still depend on nature for livelihood. The protected area, therefore, was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve as an act of reconciliation between people and nature. Tourism would help in that regard and the park was opened for visitation with the creation of several hiking trails, a camping ground, and Forest of Hope Guest House, and a research station among others.
Situated in the western province’s Rutsiro and Ngororero districts, the park is 167 km (4-hour drive) from Kigali’s capital city and 28 km (44-min drive) south of Gisenyi, the largest resort town on the northern shores of Lake Kivu. The protected area covers 34 sq.km (79,926 ha) of which 3,558 ha. form the main primary tropical forest, 1,979 ha buffer zone, and 74,389 ha as a transition zone.