Parc National Des Volcans (Pnv)


Best known is Volcanoes National Park and U.N. Biosphere Reserve—lush forested home of mountain gorillas renowned through George Shaller’s and subsequently Dian Fossey’s 18-year pioneering work which ended in her brutal murder in 1985. Because of her work and the book and film describing it, thousands of people have come to visit and support protection for these 650 or so of the world’s largest primates, which exist only here and in adjoining VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK in Congoand BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST and MGAHINGA NATIONAL PARK in Uganda.

These enormous gentle beasts, which can be six feet (2 m) tall and weigh 500 pounds (220 kg), survive in a relatively small area—58 square miles (150 km2) in Rwanda, about one-third of that in the Virungas as a whole—hemmed in by agriculture. Despite concerns they would be caught up in the bloody civil war, almost all survived, and now have considerable public support, in no small part because they contribute significantly to the country’s economy.

Seeing mountain gorillas on their home ground interacting with their families and often showing as much interest in visitors—to whom they have become habituated—as visitors show in them is an unforgettable experience.

Visits can be undertaken by anyone in reasonably fit physical condition. Permission must be obtained from the Rwandan Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN), which is charged with park protection and management and has taken care to ensure safety both for gorillas and visitors.

Rules are strictly enforced. Visitors must stay with park rangers and armed guards and at least 20 feet (6 m) away from gorillas (which sometimes means moving back, as these peaceable creatures may move in for a closer look. Playful youngsters sometimes want to climb into visitors’ laps). This is as much to protect gorillas as visitors, out of concern that wild primates could pick up a human virus for which they have no immunity and which could wipe out the whole population.

Pictures may be taken but no flash (fastest-possible settings for these shadowed black subjects). Speak in whispers, make no sudden movements, do not disturb vegetation (a gorilla could be hiding there), turn away and cover your mouth if necessary to cough (chief natural cause of death among mountain gorillas is pneumonia).

Logistics of the trip are, first, go to Kigali, the Rwandan capital which is served by international airlines and has good accommodations, thence by rental car or minibus a 90-minute drive to Ruhengeri, which also has comfortable lodging, or to a lodge just outside park boundaries. From there it’s a short distance to park headquarters and a guided one- to four-hour trek through fields and woods to find and observe the gorillas.

Treks are limited to eight persons and visits to one hour. Gorillas are almost always found by the guides, their locations monitored by trackers. In any case, the trip costs $250 U.S. per person, which goes entirely to support the park and its wildlife.

Climate is unpredictable and variable—almost any visit will include both hot and cool weather, rain and sun. Hiking boots are essential, as are hat, gloves to protect against stinging nettles, long sleeves and pants, and light waterproof jacket. Porters are available. Anyone having problems with altitudes above 8,000 feet (2,400 m) should try to come a day or two ahead to acclimate. Best times are dry-season mid-June–September and December–March.

The trek itself can be enthralling (occasionally difficult going if slopes are wet underfoot), winding through giant lobelias and tree-sized St. John’s wort covered with delicate yellow bloom. Golden monkeys swing through bamboo, sometimes with dazzling Rwenzori turacos(usually in pairs so if you miss one you might see the other) and underneath, foraging wild buffalo, forest elephants, striped orange bushbucks, and delicate little black-fronted duikers. On the forest floor are some of the world’s largest earthworms, blue and a foot long.

But nothing compares with the encounter when—as a primatologist put it—“the human primate views the biggest species in the order”, which shares more than 97 percent of our genes. A massive male silverback gorilla reaches out to greet a passing guard he recognizes. Or he stops whatever he is doing—playing with a youngster, munching a celery stalk—to look thoughtfully into a visitor’s eyes as if trying to understand him, and the visitor returns the gaze, with feelings described variously as awe, mutual curiosity and an almost mystical sense of connection between two beings that have traveled long, related and finally divergent evolutionary paths.

ALSO OF INTEREST

Nwungwe National Park, largest tract of lower-montane rain forest in East or central Africa 378 square miles (970 km2)—is a rich and ancient center of biodiversity contiguous with Kibira National Park in north Burundi.
 

Troops of spectacular black-and-white colobus monkeys, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, use branches as trampolines to spring up to 50 feet (15 m) through towering forest openings. Among more than 85 mammal species are 13 primates—25 percent of all Africa’s primate species, including rare and beautiful L’Hoest’s and owl-faced monkeys and some 500 chimpanzees—plus bushbucks, three kinds of small forest antelopes, Congo clawless otters, leopards, and such smaller predators as golden, wild, and serval cats.

More than 275 bird species include 26 Albertine Rift endemics, among them spectacular crimson-winged Rwenzori or mountain turacos, red-throated alethes, Albertine owlets, handsome francolins, iridescent sunbirds, and the largest world population of Grauer’s rush warblers in the crater swamp called “Kamiranzovu—place of the Elephants.” Plants include more than 200 tree species plus giant tree ferns and hundreds of flowering plants, among them giant lobelias and dozens of kinds of orchids.

Many endemic flora and fauna descend from species that found refuge here during the last ice age.

Over 12 miles (20 km) of hiking trails wind through towering hardwood stands, alongside gorges and waterfalls and most of the wildlife, including dazzling butterflies.

The park, which because of elevation is comfortably cool all year, is 85 miles (135 km) southwest of Kigali, transected by the main road between Butare and Cyangugu with a visitor center, comfortable rest house, and campsite along the main road. It can also be visited as a day trip from hotels in Butare and Cyangugu, each about 30 miles (48 km) away. Guides can be arranged for tracking birds and various primate species.

Akagera National Park in east Rwanda has been one of the most wildlife-rich reserves in Africa, with zebras, elephants, buffalo, lions, gazelles, baboons, leopards, a dozen kinds of antelopes, and phenomenal birds—over 500 species, including many beautiful and rare endemics—in its acacia savannahs, gallery forests, lakes and huge papyrus swamps. Overrun by rebel forces in 1991, settled afterward by displaced people for whom its total area was reduced from 965 to 347 square miles (2,500–900 km2), its future may depend on its tourism value. It is well worth a visit, not only for wildlife but for its off-the-beaten-track beauty, just a little over two hours’ drive from Kigali (4WD best inside the park).

Rwandan accommodations and roads before the civil war were good, as was travel through the country by Air Rwanda, and foreign aid has since repaired much of the damage caused by the civil war. Warnings about insecurity have been discontinued and most of the country is safe, but cautious travelers might still wish to check before visiting.

Mountain gorilla males may stand six feet (2 m) tall, with chests almost that wide, and weigh 500 pounds (220 kg). Known as “silverbacks” for silvery back patches they develop on maturity, they are gentle vegetarians unless provoked. Then they may erupt in fearsome roars, beating cupped hands on barrel chests, sounding like the low-pitched rumble of large drums.

Mountain gorilla males may stand six feet (2 m) tall, with chests almost that wide, and weigh 500 pounds (220 kg). Known as “silverbacks” for silvery back patches they develop on maturity, they are gentle vegetarians unless provoked. Then they may erupt in fearsome roars, beating cupped hands on barrel chests, sounding like the low-pitched rumble of large drums.

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PARC NATIONAL DES VOLCANS (PNV) as well as...

Nwungwe National Park

Akagera National Park

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