If there's a place on earth that shows that it's possible to recover from even the most extremely desperate situations and that proves the phenomenal resilience both of people and nature, it has to be Rwanda. This December I spent a full month there and it reminded me how valuable it is to be able to spend significant time in one place really getting to know it better.
When most people think of Rwanda the two G's usually come to mind: Genocide and Gorillas. Both of these are fundamental to the Rwandan experience. You can't be in the country and not appreciate what these people went through 25 years ago. While still recovering from the trauma, the most amazing thing is just how far they've come. Rwanda is a model of what can be achieved in just a couple of decades of rebuilding and it is going from strength to strength in pretty much every department, including wildlife conservation. This is also reflected in the recent announcement that Mountain Gorilla numbers are on the rise in the region, a testament to effective work by conservationists, governments and tourism. But there's so much more to Rwanda and it's the sort of place we can all learn a lot from. They are putting gender equality, environmental conservation and sustainability for all at the forefront of development, and you won't see a plastic bag or for that matter any rubbish on the streets at all.
It's true that there are places where you will see a lot more animals than Rwanda, like the Maasai Mara-Serengeti ecosystem and the Okavango Delta, both of which I love too, but Rwanda is a special place, not least because of the resilience of its people and the beauty of its wild savannahs and ancient forests. When you visit this place, you get the sense that you are part of the story of the rebuilding of this country - and that is actually the truth. Tourism represents about 15% of the Rwandan economy and is key to its wildlife conservation success stories.
My safari group arrived in early December and we spent the first week trying to find the elephants in southern Akagera National Park, based at African Parks' lovely Ruzizi Tented Lodge, on the banks of Lake Ihema. By day, vervet monkeys and olive baboons make this camp their home, playing and foraging in the tree canopy and leaping around the wooden walkways, even mothers with tiny babies clinging on to their bellies, as if you're not even there. They're actually equally curious about their human visitors! By night, hippos are frequent visitors to the surrounds of the tents, and the morning Dawn Chorus is an orchestra like I've never heard before.
My group this year combined elephant research with activities run by the park, such as the Behind the Scenes visit to learn the story of Akagera and really get in the picture of how far they've come in the last decade, a local community visit to see how banana beer is brewed, night drives (on our second one we were rewarded with an incredible sighting of two lions striding through the grass, intent on hunting) and a highlight for every visitor to the park, sunset boat rides on Lake Ihema. This area has one of the highest concentrations of hippos in Africa and the birding is also excellent by boat, particularly for Malachite, Pied and Woodland Kingfishers, African Fishing Eagles, Cormorants, Darters, Herons of a variety of species and colonies of Black-headed Weavers. Crowned cranes are regularly sighted here. You probably don't think of birding when you think of Rwanda, but Akagera National Park has over 500 species and the whole country is really bird-heaven! Having a particularly keen birder and photographer on the trip, Matt Cornish, gave me an opportunity to get to know the bird species a bit better on this trip and you may have noticed some of his stunning photos from our trip on our Matson & Ridley Safaris facebook page. Check out all Matt's photos at Adventures By Matt. Below are a few of my shots taken on my Canon 7D with 400mm Sigma lens (left to right: Lilac breasted roller, African marsh harrier, juvenile Marshall eagle).
We made good progress on the Akagera Elephant Project this year, adding about another 30 elephants to the database and learning much more about the relationships between individual elephants. Following an elephant identification workshop I ran with local community guide, Godefroid Nyamurangwa, who has been my right hand man on this project since we started last year, almost 30 guides learned how to identify individual elephants, sex and age them. We now have a better understanding of the two main clans in the park and their movements. I also took on a recent graduate from the University of Rwanda, Diane Cyuzuzo, who joined me for work experience in the field. It's been incredibly inspiring to see how the local guides are now using the Akagera Elephant Database in the field (on their phones) to check which elephant they are seeing in the park. They report back to our central whatsapp group with any photographs and locations throughout the year, making this a unique citizen science project that is actively helping to manage Akagera's elephant population. The project has the support of the Akagera Management Company, a partnership between African Parks and the Rwandan Development Board, and received funding this year from the Wilderness Trust. I'm enormously grateful for the support of Jes Gruner and Sarah Hall, who have provided constant support. We also assisted Akagera researcher Drew Bantlin with collection of elephant dung samples for genetic analysis this year, which gave me a chance to play with some elephant dung, one of my favourite things to do! A highlight for me this year was beginning to understand the special relationship between two bulls, an old one named "Murinzi" (meaning bodyguard) and a young one with severe damage to several legs and only half a trunk left due to poachers' snares. From our observations, we now know that these two bulls have a strong friendship and it seems like Murinzi is always keeping an eye on his younger, damaged mate.
After this it was off to Wilderness Safaris' new Magashi Camp. I can only describe this camp as simply ravishing. They have thought of everything. Set in northern Akagera right on a lake, the luxury tents are stunning and the whole experience at Magashi is five star and beyond. Our guides, Adriaan and Jaco, made sure we saw as much as possible in our 3 days in their private concession, from a lion pride in a tree (yes, Akagera's lions climb trees!) to leopards and spotted hyenas. Akagera is also home to recently reintroduced black rhinos, which we had the good fortune to see in the park. The rarely spotted Papyrus Gonolek, a stunning small bird that lives in the papyrus reeds by the water, was snapped by photographer Matt Cornish on this trip too, thanks to a special birding session with community guide Alphonse.
Finally, for the grand finale, it was off to Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge for two days of trekking to the Mountain Gorillas. There was a couple of firsts for me this year. With the bamboo shooting fresh green growth, the mountain gorillas were spending most of their time in the bamboo areas and getting lots of energy. They were full of beans, so to speak, and very active compared with other times I've been with them, which made for some fantastic experiences, including one climbing literally on top of us onto a kind of bamboo roof to feed, another couple 'making out' and quite a few mums with young babies feeding. With one of my groups we witnessed a young gorilla eating the fresh dung of another gorilla (a silverback's dung I think; I've been told silverback dung is actually a favourite!) and clearly relishing the experience. The trekking was challenging after recent rains in November, but we were lucky to avoid any showers while we were actually out trekking, so the African gods were smiling on us. It's hard to explain how life changing being in this ancient forest with the gorillas is. Suffice to say, it's feels like such an incredible privilege to be able to spend time with a creature so close to us genetically, that tolerates us completely as if we're hardly there at all. The rangers and trackers who run the gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park are so professional that you always feel like you're in incredibly capable hands.
I want to extend a special thanks to this year's group who enabled the Akagera Elephant Project to collect more vital data. Some firm friendships were formed and I have to say it is one of the magical things that that I get such like-minded people on my group safaris because this is a big part of what makes them so special. If you'd like to be a part of this project, and also experience Magashi and Gorilla trekking, please get in touch with me now as we can only hold the accommodation for a short while longer. Now is the time to book for December this year!
I'll be back next month with a blog on our family safari in Rwanda and Kenya...