Part of the Albertine Rift Valley, Nyungwe is virgin equatorial rainforest that survived the last ice age. As a result, it’s one of the oldest green expanses on the African continent, and is something of a ‘Lost World’ for rare and endangered species. It also spans several altitudinal bands, which facilitates its largely unparalleled biodiversity of both flora and fauna.
One of the largest protected montane rainforests in Africa, Nyungwe covers 1016 sq km, and extends across the border to Parc National de la Kibira in Burundi. It also serves as a watershed for Africa’s two largest rivers, the Nile and the Congo, and contains several springs that are believed to feed the headwaters of the Albertine Nile.
As stunning as Nyungwe is in its present manifestation, it is sadly nothing but a poor shadow of its former grandeur. Today, the outskirts of Nyungwe are heavily cultivated with rolling tea plantations and lush banana plantations. Beautiful though they may be, agriculture to feed the burgeoning masses of the Great Lakes region is largely to blame for the past deforestation.
In the past 100 years, the rainforests of the Albertine Rift Valley have been felled with little regard for the biodiversity they harboured. While Nyungwe received official protection under the Belgian colonial government as early as 1933, it lost 15% of its original size in the 1960s and 1970s to encroaching farms.
Fortunately, the Peace Corps, the World Conservation Society and the Rwandan government targeted Nyungwe for increased conservation in the 1980s. The original project aims were to promote tourism in an ecologically sound way, while also studying the forest and educating local people about its value.
Although tourism in the region was brought to a standstill by the tragic events of the 1990s, Nyungwe Forest is once again firmly on the tourist map. Having received official national-park status in 2004 and a great deal of support from the World Conservation Society, Nyungwe Forest National Park is now setting its sights on becoming one of East Africa’s leading ecotourism destinations.