A guide to Gishwati Mukura National Park, Location, & Lodge 

The Gishwati-Mukura National Park is located in Rubavu, Rutsiro, Ngororero and Nyabihu Districts of the western part of Rwanda, not far from Lake Kivu.

giswati chimpsGishwati forest is a montane forest lying on the Congo- Nile divide that is one of the vestiges of the great forest that used to extend from Virunga in north to Kibira massif in south. The story of Gishwati is one of a forest where biodiversity once flourished in an ecosystem where communities lived in harmony with their environment. Suddenly, a brief period of insecurity coupled with a big inflow of population (settlement of refugees from North Kivu/DRC) disturbed this green pearl and pushed it at the blink of disappearance.

The story took a happy sharp turn in 2007 when H.E. Paul Kagame committed to make Gishwati a National Conservation Park and Great Ape Trust – an American research facility in Des Moines, Iowa – stepped in to save a small population of less than 20 chimpanzees which were clinging to life in the forest; thus, preserving the whole forest habitat in the process.

The change was noticeable almost instantly. With increased protection from illegal tree cutting, encroachment, hunting, and grazing; the then 600 ha remaining prime forest regained the luxuriance it had lost and its integrity was restored. Moreover, the Gishwati Area Conservation Programme (GACP) immediately embarked on a long journey to restore the forest to its pre-war size.

The Gishwati Forest used to be one piece in a complex system of rainforests through the middle of Africa. It used to extend west beyond Lake Kivu connecting with the rainforests of the Congo, and south connecting with Nyungwe Forest. These forest systems have become fragmented due to population increase and deforestation.

The Rwandan Genocide put strain on the site as refugees fled and the population increased as people were displaced from their homes; however the area has faced years of degradation prior to the Rwandan Genocide. The area was degraded for cattle ranching and agriculture until it became unproductive. Erosion, landslides, reduced water quality, and soil infertility had resulted from this degradation of the land.

The Gishwati Area Conservation Program (GACP) began in 2007 with the collaboration of Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and Great Ape Trust, founded by philanthropist Ted Townsend. The initiative began with the idea of creating a national conservation park in Rwanda to protect the biodiversity of the Gishwati Forest area and stop some of the rapid degradation. In 1930 the Gishwati Forest covered 70,000 acres but lost about 90 percent of its cover, this initiative aimed to restore the dramatic loss the area has seen over the last decade and therefore named the site the Forest of Hope. In 2011, the GACP was succeeded by a Rwandan non-governmental organization known as the Forest of Hope Association, which is currently managing the Gishwati Forest Reserve (GFR)

Since the Forest of Hope has been in place there has been a 67 percent increase in size of the Gishwati Forest. The local chimpanzee population has grown and many research and conservation initiatives have been employed within the reserve. The Gishwati Area Conservation Program began with the hopes that down the road the Rwandan government would take over the area make it a national park. Some government actions and press coverage suggests that GFR will be promoted to national park status in the near future.

The forest reserve has recorded 58 species of trees and shrubs, including numerous indigenous hardwoods and bamboo. A recent study of carbon sequestration of the forest indicated Macaranga kilimandscharica to be the most common species of tree in areas of the forest that have not been disturbed. Previously disturbed regions of the forest experiencing regeneration show colonization of Carapa grandiflora, Entandrophagrama excelsum, and Symphonia globulifera. Other flora of the reserve includes giant tree ferns and blue lichen.

A wide range of fauna can be found within the reserve. Four species of primates are found, the Eastern Chimpanzee (Pan Troglodytes schweinfurthii), the golden monkey, the blue monkey, and the L’Hoest’s monkey (also known as mountain monkey). Though not since 2002, a fifth species of primate, the black and white colobus has been reported having been seen. There are currently estimated to be 20 East African chimpanzees in the forest. This is a 54% increase in population size from the 13 chimps in 2008, when the GACP first started. This includes five infants. The average density of chimpanzee nests was found to be 1.473 per km2 by Dr. Plump tree. Other mammals include the red river hog (Potamochoerus porous), the black front duiker (Cephalous nigrifrons), the southern tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax arboreus).

Gishwati Forest and Nyungwe National Park corridor

A 10,000 acre corridor of newly planted trees may one day connect Gishwati Forest and Nyungwe National Park, about thirty miles to the south. This connection will allow animals to migrate between the protected areas and insure the gene flow of alleles between both populations of chimpanzees. The project has received government support from Rwandan Ministry of Lands and Environment because the new forest cover will improve water catchment and water purification, prevent soil erosion, replenish soil fertility, and support ecotourism.

Concrete restoration activities

1.   Restoration and forest extension

In 2008 the forest was 886 hectares and today it is extended up to 1,484 hectares. Some 336 hectares have been reforested from late 2009 to early 2010 and 262 hectares are ready to be reforested to extend the forest and stabilize steep hillsides in an area that has been plagued by landslides and severe erosion into the Sebaya River.

2.   Community engagement program

The main goal of this program is to increase public knowledge, support and skills for conservation of Gishwati Forest Reserve. The program is working with 13 eco-clubs in local schools. The program organizes eco-clubs competitions in poetry, songs, dances and sketches to sensitize students about the values and importance of restoring and conserving the forest. The program will this year provide seedlings to eco-clubs to afforest plots on school compounds.

The program also works with 10 local cooperatives. Among these cooperatives there are beekeepers, handicrafts, traditional healers and farmers. In order to reduce crop raiding, the program and local people having plots adjacent to the forest agreed to shift from maize to none or less raided crops and these are grouped in one cooperative supported by the program.

The program has a team of non-armed eco-guards with the main role of educating local people on the importance of the forest and recording non-sustainable activities in the forest.

GATI/GACP also plans to start eco-tourism in the area and the revenue will help to finance development projects of local people.

3.   Research

The research to study the behavioral ecology of Gishwati chimpanzees is going on. Our research team has identified 15 chimpanzees, including one juvenile and two infants, which confirms that the population is reproducing.

4.   Corridor from Gishwati to Nyungwe

GACP plans to begin planning the Gishwati-to-Nyungwe forest corridor in late 2010. This corridor is important because without access to other, more distantly related chimpanzee mates, the Gishwati chimpanzees will suffer inbreeding and increased susceptibility to disasters such as fire. It is estimated that the corridor will be 50 km. in length and 1,000 m. wide, a total of 5,000 hectares.

Activities to restore the Gishwati-Mukura landscape include

  • Nature walks

Beyond the chimpanzees, which are a huge draw for tourism to the area, the Gishwati-Mukura National Park is a sanctuary for other primates like Golden Monkeys, Blue Monkeys, and L’Hoest’s Monkeys. Black and White Colobus monkeys have also been spotted by conservationists.

  • Rehabilitating natural forest and biodiversity within the Gishwati and Mukura reserves,
  • Enhancing sustainable land management in the agricultural lands between both forests and introducing salvo-pastoral approaches in the rangelands of the central former Gishwati reserve.

Gishwati Lodge

Due to open in either 2017 or 2018, Gishwati Lodge looks set to be an extremely exciting addition to Rwanda’s tourist industry. Situated in the newly formed Gishwati-Mukura National Park, a good proportion of the profits made from this camp will go towards conservation of the area and its wildlife.