Sunrise over Kigali
Scarlet-chested Sunbird Chalcomitra senegalensis in Kigali hotel gardens
How long will the mass genocides of the mid-1990s lie heavily on the minds of the people of Rwanda and continue to deter foreign visitors? When will travellers realise that Rwanda is now a relatively peaceful, friendly country to travel in? The African Bird Club tour to Rwanda in July 2011 found Rwanda to be a safe, friendly, clean and well-organised country with a superb selection of birds which are difficult to find elsewhere.
Since the days of Diane Fossey, Rwanda has been recognised as one of the best places to view gorillas, but few people know any more about the country than just this. Those that visit tend to hop across the north-western border with Uganda, to track gorillas in the Volcans National Park near Ruhengeri. This is one of the best sites to see Ladgen’s Bush-Shrike Malacanotus lagdeni, but tourism activities are heavily focused on gorillas, and hiking and bird watching are so poorly promoted as to appear to be discouraged. Although 17 Albertine Rift Endemics have been recorded, most are more readily seen elsewhere. Fortunately Rwanda has much more to offer, especially to birders.
With the exception of out-of-bounds sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the best birding in the Albertine Rift is in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest Reserve. Here, 25 Albertine Rift Endemics have been recorded, more than at any site in Uganda and currently second only to the Itombwe Mountains in the DRC. This reserve adjoins the Kibira National Park in Burundi to protect one of the largest areas of montane forest in Africa. Add to this some impressive primates - a group of owl-faced monkeys is in the process of being habituated - and utterly spectacular scenery, and you have one of the most rewarding ecotourism sites in Africa. Access is straightforward too. The tar road from Butare to Cyangugu on the DRC border runs through the heart of the forest, providing far easier access to high altitude habitats than to the more popular sites in Uganda, namely Ruhiza in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Ruwenzori National Park. With regular public transport, a camp site (at the summit of the pass, in the centre of the forest) and an inexpensive guest house (on the western edge of the forest), this is a far better option for budget travellers than any of the parks on Uganda.
Nyungwe is the only safe site in the world where the spectacular Red-collared Babbler Kupeornis rufocinctus occurs. In addition to many of the species regularly found in Bwindi, the following species have been recorded in Nyungwe: Rwenzori Turaco Ruwenzorornis johnstoni ( fairly common along the roadside), Albertine Owlet Glaucidium albertinum (very rare with about 5 records), Kungwe Apalis Apalis (rufogularis) argentea, and possibly Schouteden’s Swift Schoutedenapus schoutedeni and Rockefeller’s Sunbird Cinnyris rockefelleri. The large Kamiranzovu swamp provides far easier access to Grauer’s Swamp Warbler Bradypterus graueri than at Bwindi in Uganda and was seen from the main road through the forest in 2011. Grauer's Warbler Graueria vittata can be heard commonly in bushy areas in Nyungwe, not just at Kamiranzovu, and was also seen along the roadside in 2011. When the Symphonia trees are in flower in June / July, Purple-breasted Sunbird Nectarinia purpureiventris can be seen displaying without leaving the main road. African Green Broadbill Pseudocalyptomena graueri does not occur here and can be found at Bwindi.
To the detriment of its wildlife, most of Rwanda lies on fertile soils that support a very high human population (one of the highest densities in Africa at c300 people / km2). Consequently, few sizeable patches of intact habitat remain. Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, a savanna-dominated area in the north-east of the country that lies in the Victoria Basin, is still its largest, but has been reduced in size by over 60% in the last 10 years. Still, this area holds an interesting selection of species associated with a diversity of habitats: wetlands, woodlands, grasslands, riparian forest and bush country. Indeed, Akagera has one of the longest species lists for any conservation area in Africa: over 525 species have been recorded, with many birds reaching their northern limit here, such as Arnott's Chat Myrmecocichla arnotti, Purple-crested Turaco Tauraco porphyreolophus, Sousa’s Shike Lanius souzae, Tabora Cisticola Cisticola angusticaudus and Bennett’s Woodpecker Campethera bennettii. The park is one of the best places to search for the localised Red-faced Barbet Lybius rubrifacies, which can be seen around the entrance of the recently rebuilt Akagera Game Lodge. Also worthy of special mention are papyrus associated species, most significant of which is Shoebill Balaeniceps rex, which should be searched for along the lake shore. Lastly, this is also a known site for one of Africa’s rarest francolins, Ring-necked Francolin Francolinus streptophorus, although there appear to be no recent reports of this species from here. Camping is possible and there are also a number of other hotels less than one hour’s drive from the reserve.
The final component of Rwanda that is of particular interest to birders is the number of wetlands, which occupy almost 10% of the country. Three of these are IBAs and the main wetlands are: Akanyaru and Nyabarongo on the southern border with Burundi, Rugezi in the north near the Ugandan border, Mugesera-Rugwero in the south-east and Kagera along the eastern border with Tanzania. These wetlands hold Papyrus Yellow Warbler Chloropeta gracilirostris, White-winged Warbler Bradypterus carpalis, Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius mufumbiri, White-collared Oliveback Nesocharis ansorgei and Papyrus Canary Serinus koliensis, but little information exists as to how these wetlands can be visited. In 2011, we visited several areas of Papyrus marsh south of Kigali and Akagera and all the special birds were seen except Papyrus Yellow Warbler. There is no protection for these sites however and some of the Papyrus is being cleared for crops.
The purpose of this document is to provide a summary of Rwanda and its birds for birders interested in the country and potentially planning a visit. The information has been put together from a number of sources and it is intended to add new information as it becomes available. As such, readers are welcome to submit contributions by e-mail to [email protected].