Eco-tourism in Rwanda

We decided to take a boat tour of Lake Kivu to get a close up of some of the islands in the middle. After stopping at a brand new, super fun hotel built like tiny chalets into the mountain, we ventured off to “Napoleon’s Hat” island where the largest population of bats in the area lives. We didn’t have to hike very far. One of our guides disappeared into the forest and began clapping and whistling from far away. A cloud of bats exploded from the mountainside and circled the sky above us. The sound was almost deafening—nothing like what I imagined.
On the way out of town, we stopped at a market and watched as my host mother negotiated for vegetables to take back to Kigali. We passed an open bag of white powder and I heard this hum—a familiar kind of hum—and I looked down to see bees buzzing around busily gathering the substance like it was pollen. A little surprise wildlife window! It turns out that bees love cassava flour. The market workers said they don’t like any other kind. They didn’t seem to be bothering anyone, but were entirely covered in the white cassava dust, dodging the women packing the flour into small plastic bags and cleaning up the spilled powder on the outside of the canvas. I guess I thought African bees would be like the dreaded “Africanized bees,” but these were about the same size as mine and just as docile.

Also on the island is a small population of cows. Apparently some guy asked the Rwandan government if he could keep his cows here. It’s illegal for anyone to live on the island or farm there, but the government said sure. So, joking with my guide, I said “Wow! I’d love to see the boats that carry the cows out here!”
He looked at me in a really puzzled way and said, “What are you talking about?”
“The boats. You know. How they got the cows here.”
“No, there’s not boat. They swam here.”
Now, we’re way out in the middle of nowhere. It took us an hour by boat to get here.
“Swam? Cows swim?”
“Yes of course. And sometimes, when they cannot find food on the island, they swim to the next island. They all swim in a line. When I see them in my boat, I always let them pass first.”
So, cows swim. I think that was the most shocking part of the trip. I don’t know why, it just was…
honeybees in cassava flour
On our last day in Kibuye, on the shores of Lake Kivu, my professor started the day with an early swimming lesson with one of the Rwandan Olympic swimmers. She started to think he had stood her up for the swimming date, but just when she was about to give up, she saw a little splashing in the distance. As part of his training, he swam from the nearest city, a 10 minute ride by car away. In what world does an Olympic swimmer show up to your swim lesson in the morning after splashing across a huge, huge lake?
We ventured down the shores of the lake southward toward Nyungwe Forrest National Park where we would meet up with friends and do a little more eco-tourism. A day of hiking led us to a canopy walk where we caught glimpses of monkeys and birds and tested the limits of our fear of heights. We wanted to do the chimpanzee hike, but it turns out that is a 6-hour hike for a possible 15 second (yes, as in .25 minute) viewing of chimps in the distance. I’ll save that for my future trip to Tanzania one day, I guess. The canopy walk was on my mom’s bucket list, so I think it was a good choice. The giant ferns of the forest are one of the oldest plant species on the planet, and the view was spectacular. The guide explained that no one is allowed off the path, and if they see non-native species they destroy them. Oak and pine, while necessary for housing construction, are confined to the outside of the park in special timber areas. These trees take up too much water and choke out the native species, so they work hard to keep them out. Even the beekeepers can’t keep bees in the park. They skirt the outside of the forest, but any feral bees living in the park are left for the wildlife there. The guide smiled as he told us that chimpanzees love honey, and if they find a hive they’ll reach inside to get it out. If they can’t reach, they’ll use sticks and other tools to get the goodness. “So we leave the honey for the chimpanzees to enjoy. It’s their forest and they can keep whatever is in here.”
Canopy walk over the rain forest

Back in Kigali, I even got to hear the head veterinarian for the Gorilla Doctors project speak about conservation at the US Embassy. She was a spunky woman who leads 14 veterinarians from Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC (countries not known to have the best diplomatic relations) to join in efforts to keep the gorilla populations health. This population is one of the only in the world that is on the rise, thanks in large part to the very strict conservation efforts of all three countries and the work of the veterinarians. Ultimately, she said, you can’t just tell people they should save the gorillas because it’s the right thing to do. But when you frame it in terms of eco-tourism, the countries are incentivized to preserve the populations. Minus a few hiccups, Dian Fossey’s legacy continues on in her as she works to train local veterinarians to take care of their respective populations and coordinate to assist the others when needed—all for the good of the less than 900 gorillas living in this trans-international border park. She said the guides know the gorillas so well they can tell them just by their faces—no tracking devices, no tags. In fact, once she got pushed over by the silverback of a family and lost the GPS tracking device she was holding. When she got back to her feet, she found that they gorillas were holding it and checking it out. One of the trackers slowly approached the gorilla, sideways of course, and put his hand out. The gorilla holding the device just put it in his hand. She said the trackers are so good at their jobs, and so important for the conservation of gorillas, the Gorilla Doctors organization started a health program to ensure they and their families have access to health services. It’s both to ensure the health of the gorillas by avoiding transmission, but also to make sure they can do the job possible.

I sometimes have ethical dilemmas about visiting these pristine wildlife locations and disturbing the environment. But, and this may be my deep love of Rwanda, but every guide I meet and lecture I hear makes me believe even more that the Rwandans do conservation right. All the guides I’ve met love their jobs and take their responsibilities really seriously. They avoid endangering or exploiting the wildlife at any cost, and I think serve as model stewards for the environment. There’s a lot the world could learn from the way Rwandans preserve wildlife and habitats in an country with very limited land space and natural resources.

One Reply to “Eco-tourism in Rwanda”

  1. I love this country. Swimming cows, attack ferns and trees, bees that love cassava, gorillas, and people that take it all as seriously as they can. Erika, how can you keep coming back to the states?

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