Nyungwe Forest National Par
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Nyungwe forest National Park

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If the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park form the single best reason to visit Rwanda, then the less-publicised Nyungwe Forest is probably the best reason to prolong your stay. Extending for 1,019 km2 over the mountainous southwest of Rwanda. Nyungwe protects the largest remaining tract of medium-altitude forest anywhere in Africa, forming a contiguous forest block with the 370km2 Kibira National Park in neighbouring Burundi.

Nyungwe is the most important catchment area. in Rwanda, providing water to some 70% a the country, and its central ridges form the watershed between Africa’s two largest drainage Systems, the Nile and the Congo – indeed, a spring on the slopes of the 2,950m Mount Bigugu was recently established as the most remote source of the world’s longest river.

As with other Albertine Rift forests, Nyungwe is a remarkably rich center of biodiversity. More than 1,068 recorded plant species are known to occur in the national park. including about 200 orchids and 250 Albertme Rift Endemics. The vertebrate fauna includes 86 mammal, 322 bird, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species (of which a full 62 are endemic to the Albertinc Rift) while a total of 120 butterfly species have been recorded. Primates are particularly well represented, with 13 species resident, including a population of about 400 chimpanzees, some of which are semi-habituated to tourist visits.

Statistics aside, Nyungwe is, in a word, magnificent. The forest takes on a liberatingly primal presence even before you enter it. One moment the road is winding through a characteristic rural Rwandan landscape of rolling tea plantations and artificially terraced hills, the next a dense tangle of trees rises imperiously from the longing cultivation. For a full 50km the road clings improbably to steep forested slopes, offering grandstand views over densely swathed hills that tumble like monstrous green waves towards the distant Burundi border.

Chimpanzee

One normally thinks of rain-forest as the most intimate and confining of environments. Nyungwe is that, hut, as viewed from the main road, it is also gloriously expansive. Vast though it may be, Nyungwe today is but a fragment of what was once. an uninterrupted forest belt covering the length of the Albertine Rift (the stretch of the western Rift Valley running from the Rwenzori Mountains south to Burundi).

The fragmentation of this forest started some 2,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Iron Age, when the first patches were cut down to make way for agriculture – it is thought, for instance, that the isolation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park from similar habitats on the Virunga Mountains occurred as recently as 500 years ago. It is over the past 100 years that the forests of the Albertinc Rift have suffered most heavily. See the conservation history.