Bird killer turned passionate conservationist, birding guide

He is a professional tour guide specializing in bird guiding and identification, and boasts a 15-year track record. That is not all; Kirenga Kamugisha is also president of the Rwanda Safari Guides Association, the umbrella body that brings together tour guides in the country.
Kirenga leads a bird watching expedition in Akagera National Park. (Courtesy)
Kirenga leads a bird watching expedition in Akagera National Park. (Courtesy)

He is a professional tour guide specializing in bird guiding and identification, and boasts a 15-year track record.

That is not all; Kirenga Kamugisha is also president of the Rwanda Safari Guides Association, the umbrella body that brings together tour guides in the country. 

Kirenga’s foray into tourism was born of sheer passion and dates back to his school days at Ibanda Secondary School and Ntare School, both in Western Uganda.

At Ibanda, he was involved in organizing school trips on behalf of fellow students.

“I would be tasked with the arrangements in collaboration with the administration. We would make our own contributions as students, and make the trips on our own,” he explains.

In fact, while still a student, he already knew some of the prominent national parks in Uganda, like Queen Elizabeth, Lake Mburo, and Bwindi.

But even before joining school, his love for nature in general and birds in particular had already been manifest. “I was born in Mbarara district in Western Uganda, in an area that had a game reserve,” he explains. In fact he first saw most of the animals and birds that he knows today during his childhood.

“I spent most times in the jungles, shooting birds using my catapult. I actually killed many birds using my catapult, because that is what I always did after grazing the cows.”

One time while shooting birds, Kirenga saw a friend using a pair of binoculars to spot a distant target. On inquiry, the friend informed him he was looking for birds. “This is when I realized that other than shooting birds for sport, there was another way –getting directly involved in bird guiding,” he adds.

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Kirenga points at a rare bird. (Moses Opobo)

From then on he made up his mind to become a tour guide.

In 2001 he landed his first job with Volcanoes Safaris here in Rwanda, where he worked as a freelance tour guide.

Since he had joined the industry with just passion on his CV, he had to attend back-to-back trainings and receive professional guidance.

In 2003, Kirenga took his first bird identification and guiding training in Uganda for three weeks. More training followed; spending money and time to achieve his heart’s desire.

“After knowing what it is to protect nature and the benefits, I paused and asked: If I have seen the light, how about the others?” He mobilized fellow tour guides and he result was the creation of Rwanda Safari Guides Association in 2005. It is for advocacy and training.

In 2009, he resigned his job at Volcanoes Safaris, opting to work as a freelance guide and create more time for the association. From its formation in 2005, Kirenga steered the association until 2011, when he resigned “so that others could advance the association’s cause” he further explains. Meanwhile, he went on to form another club, the Bird Guides’ Club.

However in November 2013, he was re-elected to the presidency of the association, a position he still holds to this day. “Initially most members didn’t understand the concept, but now everyone does.”

Birding

Birding, or bird watching, or avifauna needs to be protected to enhance diversification in the local tourism sector, he says. “Rwanda does not have to depend on gorillas alone. There are many other products that need to be promoted to make tourists extend their stay and spend more.”

He describes birding as a diverse field that draws people with varied intentions:

“There are the passionate people who go around the world looking for birds just for fun, while others do it for research purposes. Others are just interested in the beautiful colors of the birds, and they don’t really care about making new discoveries.”

Yet others, especially tour guides like him will do it for business terms, taking birders around for a fee.
Kirenga also talks of “hardcore birders”, people who will do anything or spare no cost to see a new species in any part of the world.

The last such hardcore birder he guided came with an impressive CV, having watched some 5,600 bird species on his world wide birding adventures. Had Kirenga seen a similar number of birds? No; far from it. Was he intimidated? Not quite.

“I told him (the birder) that although he had seen more bird species than me, this was my home ground and I could show him any bird he wished to see.”

Rwanda is blessed with many natural bird habitats from which to choose, and according to Kirenga, one need not look across the fence, especially for beginners. That bird nestled in the tree in your compound could be the perfect start.

“Birding is simple when you start with what you already know, before one embarks on discovering new species.

Once you can attach names to the ones you already know, then you already have a checklist.”

Alternatively one could choose from the various gazetted birding sites such as the Akagera National Park that is reputed for the highest concentration of species. 

For its part, Nyungwe National Park remains one of the best birding sites in the world –referred to as a birding paradise in some circles. Nyungwe’s appeal as a birding destination accrues from the fact that it is home to Albertine Rift Endemics (species of birds found in the Albertine Rift Valley and nowhere else in the world). 

“Of the 28 Albertine endemic species Nyungwe offers four,” explains Kirenga.

Other key birding areas are in the marshlands of Bugesera, the Volcanoes National Park, and the Rugezi swamp, popular for the rare Grauer’s Rush Warbler.

Kirenga laments the fact that domestic tourism in the country is underrated, “because most people still think of tourism in terms of mzungus and dollars.”

Together with fellow guides, they are devising measures to involve locals more, using media campaigns, and also through training of local guides to create jobs for communities in birding areas.

In partnership with the chamber of tourism, the Rwanda Safari Guides Association is also planning training sessions to equip local tour guides on how to market East Africa as a single tour destination through the Uni-Visa arrangement.

“Tour guides in Rwanda need to know the region if they are to remain competitive. We need more familiarization trips so that our guides can know the products to sell in other countries.”

Kirenga contends that the best thing about this job is that it connects him to the rest of the world:  “We get to meet people of different cultures and nationalities but we still do our job.”

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