By Justin Kayiranga
Nyungwe Forest National Park in Rwanda is a remarkable natural wonder. Covering an area of approximately 1,020 km², it is one of the largest montane forests in East and Central Africa. The forest is home to many endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna, and is a hotspot for biodiversity. Recently, there has been talk over the reintroduction of some of big five animals to this forest reserve, which would bring in a new set of challenges and opportunities for the ecology of the forest.
The concept of the big five reserve originated in Africa, where it was used to describe the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses, and Cape buffalo. Today, the term is used to describe protected areas that offer tourists the opportunity to see these animals in their natural habitat. If Nyungwe were to become a big five reserve, it would join a small number of other reserves in Africa that offer visitors the chance to see these majestic creatures.
Based on the way the government of Rwanda, through its Development Board (RDB), is investing in the tourism sector, it seems that it has already produced results because the number of visitors to Rwanda is increasing year by year as the reports show.
Added to these, is the way Rwanda has decided to partner with professional management entities, to ensure a good management of its protected reserves namely Nyungwe Park and Akagera Park that are currently under African Parks Management.
Being the fact that Nyungwe has got diversity of attractions including primate species, 300+ birds’ species, trails and the canopy walkway, the park records about 60 visitors during low season and 300 visitors during high season per day, but the number would have increased if this reserve has got some of the big five animals as revealed by Protais Niyigaba, the park manager.
“In terms of marketing, we had elephants which are part of the big five animals and today they are no longer in the forest. There are marketing opportunities we’re missing out on because we don’t have those kinds of animals.”
Not only the economical impact the big five animals would bring to Nyungwe forest, but also some of these animals would play a big role on the ecology of the forest, which may be the reason behind the proposal of elephants’ reintroduction in Nyungwe.
Chloe Flatt, the Funding and Reporting Manager for African Parks in Rwanda, while at the webinar hosted by Extraordinary Journeys on February 8, 2023, revealed that the proposal is currently under discussions.
She said “Elephants once were in Nyungwe and you know they are architects of the landscapes. Since they have gone, other types of vegetation have taken over. So, where elephants would have cleared it, there has been an overabundance of it in Nyungwe.”
“In terms of reintroduction, there are discussions going on about that. Primarily is ensuring that the community is fine and not affected by that. So there are ongoing discussions with various partners including Rwanda Development Board.”
How feasible is it to have all the big five in Nyungwe?
While the big five are undoubtedly impressive animals, they are also large and potentially destructive. Elephants, for example, can cause significant damage to trees and other vegetation, while Cape buffalo can trample and damage the forest floor which means that the addition of these animals to the forest would require careful management to ensure that their presence did not have a negative impact on the delicate ecosystem.
Speaking to TOP AFRICA NEWS, Dr. William Apollinaire, a researcher from Rwanda Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management said that to ensure the viability of the big 5 population in Nyungwe requires that living conditions of each of the five are met, including food resources, suitable and safe habitat and minimized human-wildlife conflict..
“All I can say is that it is possible to fit the big 5 in the park to some extent but not for all animals at 100%. There are numerous things that must be put into consideration including the living style of those animals, availability of food resources, safety from hunters. For example, can Lions find other preys that they would normally find in savannas, besides buffalos? Would not it create an imbalance in prey management in such a forested ecosystem? Would Rhinos feel comfortable with the Nyungwe vegetation? Home ranges need to be identified!
Potential ecological impacts can happen whenever some of the big five animals are brought back into Nyungwe, as once there have been elephants and buffaloes which were confirmed extinct due to hunting and historical regional instability that have resulted in the probable loss of several key species.
However, there are also concerns about the impact that increased tourism activities could have on the forest. While tourism can bring much-needed revenue to the area, it can also lead to increased pressure on the forest and its resources. Visitors to the forest would need to be managed carefully to ensure that they do not disturb the natural balance of the ecosystem.