In October 2012 we made our first trip to Rwanda to work with Nyungwe Nziza, a USAID funded project with Development Alternatives International (DAI) to help the fairly new Nyungwe National Park (2005) reach its potential as a tourist attraction and valued nature preserve. It has been a national forest since 1933, but the change to a national park designation added a much deeper level of protection.
Visitors to the park are required to take a guide on all hiking trails and pay from $30 to $90 per person (resident Rwandese pay much less). The fee for foreigners sounds a little extreme to many hikers, but getting lost or meeting a poacher in remote African rainforest is no joke. With only about 10,000 visitors a year, the fees help to make an important investment in the future of this wonderful place. The thousands of hills in Rwanda are at their best in Nyungwe, allowing visitors to explore stands of huge tropical trees, waterfalls, 148 species of orchids and 13 primates including three chimpanzee communities. Guides provide safety and great advice along with continually improving interpretation of the unique park flora, fauna and history. Chimp tracking now has an amazing 97% success rate as the chimpanzees become more accustomed to daily visitation in their territory.
Our role at Nyungwe has taken place over the last eighteen months in three separate trips. In October of 2012, we first assessed the guides’ performance and the overall visitor experience in the park and then suggested next steps for training the 22 guides and improving the guest experience. In February of 2013 we returned to train all of the guides as National Association for Interpretation (NAI) Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG). Each of them passed the course, demonstrating a great deal of enthusiasm for their continuing professional development. We also trained a number of students attending the local tourism college, hotel staff, and community cooperative members who offer tours in beekeeping operations and cultural villages, certifying a total of 27 guides and 18 hosts.
Nyungwe guides are natural storytellers, which makes time in the field with them a special pleasure. Interpretive training suggests some priorities in how they approach leading people through this challenging landscape of hills and streams and delivering important conservation messages as well as information about the plants and animals of the forest. This year, we are involved in developing an interpretive master plan for Nyungwe National Park and assessing the guides’ progress over the last year in implementing what they learned from our previous training. We’re also providing some advanced coaching and training based on our observations of their performance. The guides are very serious about how to get even better. Education and training is greatly valued in Rwanda and opportunities to grow and learn are met with enthusiasm and dedication.
Guiding is a valued job in each of Rwanda’s three national parks: Nyungwe (noted for its outstanding variety of primates and birds), Volcanoes (known for the population of mountain gorillas), and Akagera (a savannah landscape with elephants, giraffes, and other large grazing animals). The guides’ important role in sharing this amazing landscape and nation with visitors should not be underestimated. Their conservation messages can help to remind visitors that protection of Africa’s parks has far-reaching consequences for the entire planet.
National Geographic recently suggested Nyungwe as one of the top 20 parks to visit in 2014 around the world. Ratings of the park experience by reviewers at TripAdvisor.com were very good in 2012 and even better in 2013. Park staff and guides are dedicated to making this a very special experience for guests.
On a birdwatching hike today, we saw about two dozen new species for us, including one of the 26 endemics, found only in the Albertine Rift area of Africa. I am personally delighted to have seen nine of the 13 species of primates in a matter of a few days. Nyungwe Nziza means “beautiful Nyungwe” in the kinyarwandan language. These talented guides will help you appreciate its beauty in the best possible light.
– Tim Merriman
We are collecting used laptops (Mac or PC) to bring to guides in Rwanda over the next year. Most do not have one and it is a key link to information, scholarship opportunities and colleagues working in conservation. Your old laptop might bring a little money on Ebay but it will yield great opportunities for a park guide and conservationist in Rwanda. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have one to contribute.