20 years after genocide, Rwanda’s National park is now safe harbor to bio-diversity

Nyungwe National Park / Matt Payne
Nyungwe National Park / Matt Payne

WASHINGTON, August 23, 2014 — It has been more than 20 years since the infamous genocide in the small East African nation of Rwanda (April 199), where nearly one million Rwandans lost their lives in the ethnic conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Nyungwe National Park, where visitors now hike hillsides to glimpse of troops of chimps, was a refuge for Tutsis who hid in the vast shadows of forests in fear for their lives, waiting for 100-day slaughter to end.

Since the genocide’s end, this nation has established a solid democracy and worked tirelessly to reunify the nation, and it has become one of Africa’s safest and cleanest destinations as well as one of its most stunning and biologically diverse.

Shortly after the genocide, however, the extremely divided nation was faced with abject poverty and as a result, Nyungwe – one of Africa’s last remaining mountain rainforests — nearly faced its demise. Impoverished local villagers and a rapidly growing population surrounding the park depended on the wood for cooking and keeping warm. Many of the animals in the park were hunted for food. Surrounding farms encroached on the park.

Since 2010, Strengthening Sustainable Ecotourism has been working in and around Nyungwe National Park (SSENNP) with a program known in Kinyarwanda as “Nyungwe Nziza” or Beautiful Nyungwe.”

It has been working with the park to promote and sustain Rwanda’s ecotourism and conservation while promoting cultural awareness and stimulating the local economy through tourism. Thus far, the project has worked closely with local communities and schools to raise environmental awareness and help generate local jobs by bringing tourists from all over the world to visit Nyungwe National Park’s spectacular rain forest canopy.

Colobus monkey, Nyungwe National Park
Colobus monkey, Nyungwe National Park

Nyungwe, Africa’s largest protected mountain rain forest, is a birdwatcher’s paradise with more than 280 species of birds. It also boasts thirteen species of primates including what is possibly the world’s largest concentration of colobus monkeys and, most notably, its containment of one of Africa’s largest populations of chimpanzees.

Nyungwe offers several guided hikes at varying skill levels along well-maintained trails. Hikes feature rivers, waterfalls and wildlife and are lead by outstanding locally hired, multi-lingual guides. There are specific guided tours for viewing colobus monkeys, exquisite birds and chimps. A visit to the model Kitabe Cultural Village at the park’s entrance gives guests a glimpse into the pre-colonial traditional life of Rwandans. The village, funded by the Nyungwe Nziza Project, engages local community members in dancing, singing, and costumed historical re-creations.

In 2010, the Nyungwe Nziza Project (NNP) helped open a 90-meter long (nearly 300 feet) canopy walk. At 50 meters (164 feet) above ground and only the third of its kind in African (others can be found in South Africa and Ghana), this canopy walk offers visitors an unrivaled and otherwise unachievable way to experience the rain forest canopy. Thanks to the canopy, more revenue was generated for the park and local communities as it brought in thousands more visitors.

The Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill
The Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill

The Project continues to work with both the public and private sectors to find more ways to introduce the world to what is one of Africa’s most overlooked and outstanding National Parks. By attracting more visitors to the Park, the project has helped generate more jobs and thereby increasing local household revenues.

Over the next two years, NNP is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Jane Goodall Institute to habituate more chimps in the northern section of the park thus allowing visitors more opportunities to track the chimpanzees. They are also working with the US National Park Service to create self-guided trails for visitors seeking their own adventures, as well as establish more campsites for backpackers trekking across East Africa. They run programs to educate local guides on the bird populations and habitats in an effort to make Nyungwe a premier international bird watching destination.

Staying in the Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda

Guests have three options for accommodations when visiting Nyungwe. The Nyungwe Forest Lodge offers luxury in a quietly elegant lodge that all but disappears into rain forest. It has hosted its share of celebrities at its perch on the edge of a tea plantation. Rooms here, each with balconies that back right up to the rain forest, offer guests plenty of opportunity to observe the park’s playful monkeys from their comfort of their own surroundings.

The Nyungwe Top View Hill Hotel offers reasonable rooms with outstanding views of the park. The Gisakura Guest House is the most affordable offering small rooms with shared bathrooms.

Nyungwe Forest Lodge, Rwanda
Nyungwe Forest Lodge, Rwanda

With the ceaseless efforts of the Nyungwe Nziza Project, Nyungwe National Park has embraced this challenge head on by counting on the resilience of its surrounding communities to restore and preserve the park, making it an inviting, awe-inspiring and life-changing experience for its visitors and making a better life for the people who call this part of the verdant country home.

With increasing numbers and draws like the Canopy Walk which increase the park’s attendance exponentially, the park employs more than 100 locals and continues to educate more and more, enlisting them as guides and hiring them to build trails and sustain the park proving that, when preserved, the park is of significantly greater value than if it were gone.

To read more from the author go to mattpaynewriter.com.

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