Nyungwe National Park is one of the few tracts of truly wild land left in Rwanda. As Africa’s most densely populated country, besides the island of Mauritius, preserving the remarkable biodiversity of the region is not without its challenges.
At some point in 1999 there stopped being elephants in Nyungwe, Rwanda. They had occupied the dense mountain rainforests for as long as anybody could remember before that. But then they were hunted into extinction, primarily by poachers, and the forest lost an important native inhabitant.
The elephant was not the first major disappearance from the ancient forest, which predates the last Ice Age. In 1974 it is thought the final remaining buffalo was killed, although the last recorded evidence of one was from 1971 when the tracks of a lone buffalo were found.
The tuskless skull of that last elephant is on display at the modest Nyungwe National Park visitor centre; a reminder of death and extinction, and the consequences of environmental complacency. It is also a reminder of rebirth: Without being granted National Park status in 2005, there would be no regulation or unified collective will to prevent further species being lost. There would also be less tourism, and money is often the difference.
Who needs gorillas?
Getting to Nyungwe had been a relatively straightforward, if not the most comfortable, journey. From capital city Kigali, it was necessary to traverse half of the country. Rwanda seemed neither flat nor severe at any point; one hill after another greeted our bus with the cresting of each horizon.
Every inch of the infinite undulations was farmed. No patch of country was fallow or empty. Many fields were being worked on by hand, with coffee, wheat, beans and rice the common crops. Vehicles were seldom seen. People travelled along the roads on foot or bicycle in their thousands across the country.
The road west is not a common tourist route, as visitors to Rwanda often make a beeline for the gorillas of Volcanoes National Park in the north. Dian Fossey would roll in her Rwandan grave if she knew so many people came to see them now; she famously dismissed all ecotourism as having a negative impact. But her forte was conservation, not soothsaying. Little could she have predicted the positive effect ecotourism has on the country and economy.
Although there are no gorillas in Nyungwe, 13 different species of primate live in the forest, including a couple of groups of chimpanzees. When the Rwandan government doubled the gorilla viewing permit fee to $1500 in 2017, Nyungwe suddenly became a great alternative wildlife experience for a fraction of the gorilla trekking cost.
The road climbed considerably to reach the fringes of Nyungwe National Park, which occupies land between 1600-2950m (5250-9679 ft). By now the common crop beside the road was tea. Vast, verdant fields of it stretched up and down rises and dips of the land, interspersed with the occasional silvery thicket of eucalyptus.
Like a wave against a sea wall, the tea plantations broke against Nyungwe forest, a deep, untouched green that seemed completely incongruous after an entire country of cultivation. The villages ceased and even the steady procession of people at the side of the roads abated. Occasionally I glimpsed views of a spectacular procession of forested precipices, leading away interminably. Ancient primary rainforest has existed here for thousands of years.
At the visitor centre for the National Park, which is the only set of buildings for miles around, there is no flowing water. Electricity is solar-powered, but scant. My accommodation was a tent, which was set up at a viewpoint, looking out over the centuries-old forest canopy.
Before long a thud outside my tent announced the arrival of a curious L’Hoest’s monkey. As soon as it saw me, it fled back into a nearby tree. L’Hoest’s monkeys are only found in this region of Africa and considered a vulnerable species. Their white beards and chestnut backs are endearing features, but it is their piercing orange eyes that are most captivating.
The cicadas susurrated to a crescendo as the sun emerged, and a procession of L’Hoest’s monkeys passed by, one mother taking a break on a rock as her baby clung to her front and peered around at the strange new world.
Into the woods
On a 10km (6.2-mile) hike through the rainforest the next day, I was hopeful of seeing something, anything big. Sadly, no mammals at all presented themselves to us. I reminded myself that they do not exist for my own gratification and felt it at least fortunate that they still have a habitat at all. But it wasn’t an uneventful exploration.
The forest constantly rasped with life, at times rising to a deafening pitch, then cascading away to a steady thrum. There is complexity at every layer of the food chain in a place like this. Everything has its carefully ordered place in the ecosystem. Yet the thought kept returning that there were species missing. As we reached a waterfall that pooled into a fresh pond below, I wondered whether elephants would have once gathered here, playing with the water and slaking their thirst.
Passing the messy remnants of a chimpanzee nest, long since vacated, we reached an area of particularly boisterous bird life. Besides the 75 species of mammal in Nyungwe, there are 278 bird and 1068 plant species. A giant bird crashed through the canopy, cumbersome and unwieldy. This was a black and white casqued hornbill. After it had screeched away, over by some flowering plants a Regal sunbird showed off its gorgeous plumage.
I asked my guide Ronaldo about the poaching. “For many local people there is nothing wrong with hunting, it is a natural part of their life,” he said. People have always done it, and hunting was necessary generations ago for survival. Now one could argue that it is no longer necessary. The newspaper Rwanda Today mentioned that boars and duikers (a small antelope) are still commonly hunted in the forest, despite laws preventing it.
“Habits are hard to break,” said Ronaldo. “Try telling the poor farmers who cannot afford to buy good meat to stop doing the thing their fathers and grandfathers did all their lives.”
Paying for protection
At least half of the land bordering Nyungwe in Rwanda has a population density of between 200-626 people per square km, which is a lot of possible conflict and an impossible border to govern. The hope is that increasing tourism revenue trickles down to local communities.
In 2016 around 10,000 people visited Nyungwe National Park. Only a paltry 5% of the money visitors spent there reaches local people. Understandably such low sums will do little to change hearts and minds. That 5% often pays for education (children are encouraged to respect and protect nature), providing clean water so that people don’t have to venture into the forest for it, and into bee hives, so that locals give up their practice of smoking bees from their natural hives in the forest, which has led to forest fires in the past. Income may have helped stem the problem, but it is not enough, and 1020 sq. km of forest is an impossible area to protect on that amount either.
Since Nyungwe became a National Park, plans have slowly been developed to reintroduce elephants to this part of the country. In 2009 the Wildlife Conservation Society released its feasibility report, suggesting that it would be possible to translocate elephants back to Nyungwe. Concerns were raised, however, about the security of the pachyderms on release. Poaching is highly likely. Another major possibility is known as human elephant contact, where elephants leave the forest cover during the night in search of food and damage farming land.
Either way, should the plans go ahead, ensuring the safety of the animals is a huge undertaking, and one that only highlights the scale of the battle with issues like the poaching problem.
A precious resource
That night I unzipped my tent and looked up at the sky. Without any light pollution for miles around, the Milky Way was in full splendour. Through the trees a campfire crackled gently in a clearing. This could well be one of Rwanda’s most precious resources, I thought as I breathed in the freshest air one can likely find on this planet and listened to the constant patter of insects.
Somewhere, out in that cluster of forested hills, a gunshot rang out in the distance, reverberating along valleys and escaping over the tree tops. After a minute there was another shot, then another. The whole forest fell into silence. When the sylvan rhythm picked up again minutes later, there was likely one less creature drawing breath in the ancient forest; one more species being pushed closer to extinction; one more reintroduction programme to consider when it is already too late.
While it would be marvellous to see elephants roam Nyungwe once more, it might take more than just the hope of tourist dollars and goodwill to make meaningful inroads in to conservation, and for Rwanda to consider itself a true ecotourism destination.