Nyungwe Forest National Park – Chimps, Golden Monkey Tracking

Nyungwe Forest is a high-altitude, mountainous rainforest in southern Rwanda conserved as a forest reserve in 1933. The conservation area covers approximately 378 square miles (970 square kilometers). The forest is situated in the Albertine Rift, a series of mountain ranges beginning at the Rwenzori Mountains in western Uganda and Congo, continuing south into the Lendu Plateau in eastern Congo. Contiguous with Kibira National Park in Burundi, Nyungwe National Park is one of the largest mountainous rainforests remaining in Africa. Just recently the Nyungwe forest received National Park status, making it East Africa’s largest protected high-altitude rainforest.
Nyungwe’s biodiversity is astonishing by African standards and is one of the most endemic species-rich areas in all of Africa. Along with its biodiversity, Nyungwe is an important water catchment area for Rwanda and contains many natural resources integral to Rwanda’s human populations. Rwanda is also one of the most heavily populated areas of Africa with over 8 million people.

Visitor activities

Birding activities in Nyungwe Forest
Nyungwe Forest National Park is one of the most important bird watching national park in Rwanda with over 280 bird species recorded and the majority are forest specialists and 26 are regional endemics whose range is restricted to a few forests along the Albertine Rift. Bird watching in Nyungwe can be rather tiring, since the vegetation is thick and many birds tend to stick to the canopy. You don’t have to be an ardent birdwatcher to appreciate some of Nyungwe’s birds. Most people double when they first spot a great blue turaco, a chicken sized bird with garish blue, green and yellow feathers, often seen gliding between the trees along the main road. Another real gem is the paradise flycatcher, along tailed blue, orange and sometimes white bird often seen around the rest house. Other birds impress with their bizarre appearance the gigantic forest hornbills, for instance, whose wailing vocalizations are almost as comical as their ungainly bills and heavy winged flight. And when tracking through the forest under growth, you should watch out for the red throated alethe, a much localized bird with a distinctive blue-white eyebrow. The alethe habitually follows colobus troops to eat the insects they disturb, and based on our experience it seems humans are merely another large mammal, often perching within a few inches.

Chimp tracking in Rwanda
The population chimpanzees in Rwanda is about 500 individuals and thought to be confined to Nyungwe national park including a small community in the Cyamudongo Forest. During the rainy season, a troop of chimpanzees often moves into Uwinka and the colored trail as well, and it is up to the tourist to decide whether to pay extra to track them.
You may be able to hear chimpanzees before you see them; from somewhere deep in the forest, an excited hooting, just one voice at first, then several, rising in volume before stopping abruptly or fading away. Unlike most other primates, chimpanzees don’t live in troops, but instead form extended communities of up to a hundred individuals, which move around the forest in small mobile sub groups that often revolve around a few close family members like brothers, mothers and daughters. Male chimps normally spend their entire life within the community in which they were born, where as females are likely to migrate into a neighboring community at some point after reaching adolescence.

Golden monkeys in Nyungwe forest
The thirteen primate species which are found in Nyungwe represent something like 20-25% of the total number in Africa, an extraordinary figure which in East Africa is comparable only to Uganda’s Kibale forest. Further more, several of these primates are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN red list, and Nyungwe is almost certainly the main stronghold for at least two of them. The most celebrated of Nyungwe’s primates is the Rwenzori Colobus a race of the more wide spread Angola colobus which is restricted to the Albertine Rift. The Rwenzori Colobus is highly arboreal and acrobatic leaf-eater, easily distinguished from any other primate found in Nyungwe by its contrasting black over all colour and snow-white whiskers, shoulders and tail tip. Although all colobus monkeys are very friendly, the ones in Nyungwe are unique in a way, they typically move in troops of several hundred animals. A semi-habituated troop of 400 species, resident in the forest around the campsite, is known to be the largest troop of arboreal primates anywhere in Africa and else where in the world, only the Chinese golden monkey moves in groups of a comparable number. Most of the other monkeys in Nyungwe are guenons, the collective name for the taxonomically confusing cercopithecus genus. Other types of monkeys in Nyungwe National Park are the L’Hoest’s monkey, Silver monkey, golden monkey, Owl faced monkey, red tailed monkey, Dent’s Mona monkey, crowned monkey, Vervet monkey, and Olive baboon which is a savanna monkey that is occasionally seen along the road through Nyungwe, Grey-cheeked mangabey is an arboreal monkey of the forest interior. In addition to the chimpanzees and monkeys, Nyungwe harbors four types of small nocturnal primates more closely related to the lemurs of Madagascar than to any other primates on the African main land. These are three species which include bush baby or galago (group of tiny, hyper active wide – eyed insectivores) and the sloth like potto. All are very unlikely to be seen by tourists.

The Gisakura Tea Estate
A relict forest patch in this tea estate, only 20 minutes’ walk from the ORTPN Rest house, supports a resident troop of around 40 Rwenzori Colobus monkeys. This troop is very, far more so than the larger troop at Uwinka, and the relatively small territory the monkeys occupy makes them very easy to locate and to see clearly. Oddly, a solitary red – tailed monkey moves with the colobus, and has done so far at least six years. Some of the guides say it is treated as the leader. Other guides may tell you the odd monkey out at Gisakura is not a red-tailed but a Mona (also known as Dent’s monkey and unlikely to be observed elsewhere in east Africa) or a hybrid red-tailed / Mona. The apparent cause of this confusion is that a solitary Mona monkey does spend some of its time in the same forest parch, and the guides are unable to distinguish it from the red-tailed cousin.
Particularly in the early morning, a relict forest patch is also an excellent bird watching site, since it lies in a ravine and is encircled by a road, making it easy to deep into the canopy. Most of what you see are forest fringe or woodland species (as opposed to interior forest birds), but numerically this proved to be the most rewarding spot in Nyungwe, with some 40 species identified in an hour, notably black-throated apalis, paradise and white-tailed crested flycatcher, Chubb’s cisticola, African golden oriole, olive-green cameroptera, three types of sun bird, two greenbuls and two crimson-wings.
Note that a visit to this forest patch is treated as a primate walk by the ORTPN office and a corresponding fee is charged.

The Waterfall Trail
This superb trail starts at the ORPTN Rest house and takes between three and six hours to cover as a round trip, depending on how often you stop and whether you drive or walk from the rest house. The first part of the trail- in essence following the road to the car park-passes through the rolling tea plantations doted with relict forest patches which are worth scanning closely for silver and other monkeys. These small stands of forest can also be rewarding for birds; keen ornithologists might well want to take them slowly, and could perhaps view this session view this section of the trail as worthy bird watching excursion in its own right. The Trail then descends into the forest proper, following flat contour paths through a succession of tree-fern-covered ravines, and crossing several streams, before a sharp descent to the base of the pretty but small waterfall. Monkeys are often seen along the way (The Angola colobus seems to be particularly common) and the steep slopes allow good views into the canopy. This trail can be very rewarding for true forest interior birds, with a good chance of sporting of Albertine Rift endemics such as Rwenzori turaco and yellow – eyed black flycatcher

Uwinka and the colored trail
The Trail goes through the boundary of habituated troop of 400 colobus monkeys. During the rainy season, a troop of chimpanzees often moves into this area as well, and it is up to the tourist to decide whether to pay extra to track them. You can reasonably expect to see some primates along any of the colored trails as well as a good variety of forest birds – though the latter require patience and often stops where there are open views into the canopy. Unless you opt for specific primate visit, chance will be the decisive factor in what you see, though the 2.5 km Blue Trail is regarded as especially good for primates and birds, while the 10 km Red Trail is good for chimpanzees and passes four water falls.