Not Just Gorillas: Ecotourism in Rwanda

Besides the countless hours I spent working on my research in Rwanda this past summer, I had the lucky opportunity to do some traveling when my parents came to join me at the end of my project. First and foremost on my priority list was to trek up to see the mountain gorillas, made famous by Dian Fossey and also studied for many years by one of my undergraduate professors/mentors, Diane Doran-Sheehy. While we did indeed go see the gorillas, and it was every bit as magical as I wanted it to be, we also decided to take a tour around the rest of Rwanda, to see the sites less commonly visited by foreigners.

Our first stop, even before the gorillas, was a trip down to the Presidential Palace and the Ethnographic Museum, both located a couple of hours south of Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali. These sites gave me an appreciation for Rwandan history before the 1990s, an often-overlooked time period because of the shadow cast by the genocide of 1994. We had the opportunity to meet some purebred Ankole-Watutsi cattle that are kept at the presidential palace as a way of preserving Rwanda’s pastoral culture, and we also explored recreations of traditional thatched huts.

The Ethnographic Museum

After these museums, we traveled to Nyungwe Forest Lodge, a swanky hotel set in the middle of a working tea plantation just outside of Nyungwe Forest National Park. Our goal for this portion of the trip was singular- we were there to go chimpanzee trekking. The Wildlife Conservation Society has a chimpanzee trekking program in place to support conservation of Nyungwe and the small satellite forests that were formerly contiguous with it. Although it involved an extremely early start and a pretty tough hike, the time we spent observing a lone male chimpanzee in the wild was well worth the effort. That same afternoon, we took a more leisurely hike to see some black and white colobus monkeys in a patch of forest adjacent to the tea plantations.

Did I mention the hotel had an infinity pool?

Did I mention the hotel had an infinity pool?

Our next destination was Volcanoes National Park, the legacy of Dian Fossey’s revolutionary life’s work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. But like I said, this post isn’t about the gorillas (I will probably write a whole other post about just them at a later date!). On our second day at this park, we went for a hike to see the golden monkeys, another critically endangered species that calls the Virunga Mountains home. These monkeys get much less attention from tourists than the gorillas, but they are able to benefit from the money generated by gorilla trekking and other activities in the national park. And that, to me, is a perfect example about how we can use charismatic megafauna (ie. mountain gorillas) in order to help save otherwise overlooked species (ie. golden monkeys) and their habitats.

The final park that we visited was Akagera National Park, Rwanda’s version of a more traditional “safari.” After watching the sun rise over Lake Ihema while we ate breakfast, we took an early morning boat ride the lake, which separates Rwanda from its eastern neighbor, Tanzania. We saw countless species of birds, as well as plenty of hippos, a monitor lizard, and a very shy Nile crocodile. After the boat ride, we spent the rest of the day driving through the park to see the terrestrial species, mostly ungulates (giraffes, zebras, antelope, etc.) as well as baboons and vervet monkeys. Although we did not see any elephants on this drive, I had the good fortune of “meeting” the park’s oldest bull elephant, Mutware, on a trip there earlier in the summer.

The famous rolling hills of Rwanda give Akagera a distinctive look in comparison to other savanna parks.

The famous rolling hills of Rwanda give Akagera a distinctive look in comparison to other savanna parks.

Akagera is currently being managed by a multinational nonprofit called African Parks, which uses a business model to make conservation a profitable and sustainable venture in parks across the African continent. Since their takeover of the park, attendance has risen dramatically, and their freelance tour-guide training program gives jobs to local men and women. There are current plans to restore lion and rhinoceros populations in the park, as both species had gone locally extinct as a result of poaching and poisonings by farmers.

My overall impression of Rwanda, from a tourist’s perspective, is that there is a lot of potential for growth in ecotourism, and that both the Rwandan people and wildlife can benefit from responsibly implemented programs. I hope that in the future, Rwanda is known as more than just a place where horrific events have taken place (ie. the murder of Dian Fossey and the 1994 genocide). Instead, it should be celebrated as a rich land of culture and biodiversity, where tourists can access some of the world’s most magnificent landscapes and wildlife.

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