If you’ve visited Rwanda, chances are you’ve seen the country’s famous mountain gorillas in VolcanoesNational Park. The endangered gorillas are such a national treasure that the ceremony when each year’s baby gorillas are named is a huge public event. Yet most foreign tourists never visit the country’s other attractions, which include AkageraNational Park in the east and NyungweNational Park in the southwest.
Destination Nyungwe Project (DNP), which I visited yesterday with the leaders of the East Africa PHE Network, is trying to change all that. It envisions NyungweNational Park becoming a world-class tourist destination, and improving the livelihoods of the local people in the process. In fact, as project director Ian Munanura sees it, ensuring the park benefits local communities is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s fine to tell people not to cut down trees in the forest, or not to poach endangered animals, but they will continue these activities unless they have another way to make a living.
Nyungwe has a lot to offer; as the largest montane rainforest in Africa, it boasts 13 species of primates, including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys, as well as nearly 300 species of birds. It also has a relatively well-developed network of hiking trails. DNP is working on several projects intended to boost the park’s tourism appeal, including an interpretive visitor center, high-end tented campsites, and a rainforest canopy walk on a bridge suspended between two towers.
As these larger projects are constructed, DNP—which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by International Resources Group, Family Health International, and the Wildlife Conservation Society—is also working to improve the health, livelihoods, and environmental management of the local communities. A health coordinator works with local clinics to improve maternal and child health, family planning and reproductive health, and hygiene. Health and family-planning activities are key to ensuring the park’s survival because high population growth, and the resulting demand for land, is one of the key threats to the park, says Munanura. A small-grants program provides micro-loans to local people for sustainable livelihoods, such as setting up cultural tourism attractions or producing soap, lotion, and oils from forest products.
Nyungwe National Park still struggles to attract tourists, as it lacks the luxury accommodations offered at VolcanoesNational Park. But according to Munanura, 80 percent of visitors to Nyungwe hear about it through word-of-mouth, suggesting that those who do visit are extremely satisfied with their experience. These visitors would probably be even more satisfied knowing that their vacations were helping communities escape from poverty and disease. We will be following the progress of this innovative project with interest.
Rachel Weisshaar is attending the meeting of the East Africa PHE Network in Kigali, Rwanda. She will be posting daily updates on the New Security Beat throughout the week (see days one and two).
Photo: Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda. Courtesy of Rachel Weisshaar.