Nyungwe forest national park is Rwanda’s leading chimpanzee tracking safari destination for primates and birding tours in Rwanda. Nyungwe forest Rwanda is the source of Africa’s great rivers. Rain that falls on the east side feeds the Nile and on the west runs to the Congo. The Congo-Nile Divide is a mountain range that runs north to south through Rwanda.
Nyungwe receives more than 2000mm a year of rain. Recently, Nyungwe opened a canopy walk, the only one of its kind in East Africa. This is a wonderful vantage point to view the incredible biodiversity of this rare forest.The canopy walk opens at a time when Rwanda is being recognized as a top 10 global travel destination (Lonely Planet, 2009.)
Nyungwe Forest is a high-altitude, mountainous rain forest in southern Rwanda conserved in 2005, the Government of Rwanda declared Nyungwe a national park, according it the highest level of protection in Rwanda. This forest, the largest mountain rainforest in all of Africa, hosts 13 species of primates including the Angola colobus found in groups of 300-400 animals that is an attribute unique to Nyungwe. It also hosts a large population of chimpanzees and two other threatened species of monkeys; the owl faced monkey and reported but unverified sightings of the golden monkey.
Nyungwe is stated as “the most important site for biodiversity conservation in Rwanda” by Birdlife International for its approximately 280 bird species, 25 of which are endemic. Nyungwe’s forests extend to altitudes occupied by few other forests in Africa; 1600-2950 meters above sea level. It is also home to myriad orchids, butterflies, moths and other fascinating insects – all of which constitute the potential for a major, low volume, tourist destination in the making. (Source: Draft Investors Guide to Nyungwe National Park Area, South Western Rwanda, Preliminary version 1 – 2008)
Nyungwe is also Rwanda’s primary water catchment, sheltering more than two-thirds of all of its waters.The people of the area are as diverse, with many examples of song, dance, music, cuisine, handicrafts and other artisan skills that make for a fascinating complement to the nature side of trip to this part of Africa.
The forest has a network of walking and hiking trails. It has a number of camping sites and the development of cultural tourism near the edge of the Park is underway. New trails and camping sites are planned and being constructed as part of the development project, as are new ways of both observing and enjoying the Park.
The thirteen primate species which are found in Nyungwe represent something like 20-25% of the total number in Africa, an extraordinary figure which in East Africa is comparable only to Uganda’s Kibale forest. Furthermore, several of these primates are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN red list, and Nyungwe is almost certainly the main stronghold for at least two of them. The most celebrated of Nyungwe’s primates is the Rwenzori Colobus a race of the more wide spread Angola colobus which is restricted to the Albertine Rift.
The Rwenzori Colobus is highly arboreal and acrobatic leaf-eater, easily distinguished from any other primate found in Nyungwe by its contrasting black over all colour and snow-white whiskers, shoulders and tail tip. Although all colobus monkeys are very friendly, the ones in Nyungwe are unique in a way, they typically move in troops of several hundred animals. A semi-habituated troop of 400 species, resident in the forest around the campsite, is known to be the largest troop of arboreal primates anywhere in Africa and elsewhere in the world, only the Chinese golden monkey moves in groups of a comparable number. Most of the other monkeys in Nyungwe are guenons, the collective name for the taxonomically confusing cercopithecus genus.
Other types of monkeys in Nyungwe National Park are the L’Hoest’s monkey, Silver monkey, golden monkey, Owl faced monkey, red tailed monkey, Dent’s Mona monkey, crowned monkey, Vervet monkey, and Olive baboon which is a savanna monkey that is occasionally seen along the road through Nyungwe, Grey-cheeked mangabey is an arboreal monkey of the forest interior. In addition to the chimpanzees and monkeys, Nyungwe harbors four types of small nocturnal primates more closely related to the lemurs of Madagascar than to any other primates on the African main land. These are three species which include bush baby or galago (group of tiny, hyper active wide – eyed insectivores) and the sloth like potto. All are very unlikely to be seen by tourists.
Nyungwe Forest National Park is one of the most important bird watching national park in Rwanda with over 280 bird species recorded and the majority are forest specialists and 26 are regional endemics whose range is restricted to a few forests along the Albertine Rift. Bird watching in Nyungwe can be rather tiring, since the vegetation is thick and many birds tend to stick to the canopy. You don’t have to be an ardent birdwatcher to appreciate some of Nyungwe’s birds. Most people double when they first spot a great blue turaco, a chicken sized bird with garish blue, green and yellow feathers, often seen gliding between the trees along the main road. Another real gem is the paradise flycatcher, along tailed blue, orange and sometimes white bird often seen around the rest house. Other birds impress with their bizarre appearance the gigantic forest hornbills, for instance, whose wailing vocalizations are almost as comical as their ungainly bills and heavy winged flight. And when tracking through the forest under growth, you should watch out for the red throated alethe, a much localized bird with a distinctive blue-white eyebrow. The alethe habitually follows colobus troops to eat the insects they disturb, and based on our experience it seems humans are merely another large mammal, often perching within a few inches.
Chimpanzee tracking in Rwanda
The chimpanzees population in Rwanda is about 500 individuals and thought to be confined to Nyungwe national park including a small community in the Cyamudongo Forest. During the rainy season, a troop of chimpanzees often moves into Uwinka and the colored trail as well, and it is up to the tourist to decide whether to pay extra to track them. You may be able to hear chimpanzees before you see them; from somewhere deep in the forest, an excited hooting, just one voice at first, then several, rising in volume before stopping abruptly or fading away.
Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees don’t live in troops, but instead form extended communities of up to a hundred individuals, which move around the forest in small mobile sub groups that often revolve around a few close family members like brothers, mothers and daughters. Male chimps normally spend their entire life within the community in which they were born, where as females are likely to migrate into a neighboring community at some point after reaching adolescence.
There are guest houses at either side of the park on the main road. In Kitabi (on the Butare side) the guest house is situated in the school of wildlife management. Coming from Butare take the left turn marked ‘tea factory’ about 200m before the park entrance. There is then a right turn about 500m further on, this is the guest house. The reception is is l’Hoests monkey house. Rooms are 6’000 – 14’000Francs (there is a student discount available if you have student ID)
There is camping at the Uwinka head quarters, it’s a bit pricey (see fees and permits) but you do get a guy who lights your fire for you. This may sound a bit unnecessary but after a cold night (apparently it can get down to 0C here due to the altitude), waking up to a roaring fire is heaven!
The main entrance is at Uwinka on the main Cyangugu – Butare road. It’s about 50km from Cyangugu and 75km from Butare. The road is mostly in good condition. There are regular buses along the route and hitching is also an option. Buses are often full when the reach here so if you’re getting a bus out it may be best to try and book your ticket in advance.
If traveling from Cyangugu ignore the sign in town that says it’s 20km and further ignore the sign 15km from Cyangugu directing you right up a dirt track. These refer to a small off shoot of the park, not the park proper.
When to Visit Nyungwe Forest Park?
Any time of the year.