Giving flight to birds in Bugesera

The year was 2000, and Mugisha Davidson was studying for his graduate studies in tourism and conservation at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, UK.
The group out in the field. (Courtesy)
The group out in the field. (Courtesy)

The year was 2000, and Mugisha Davidson was studying for his graduate studies in tourism and conservation at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, UK. 

One day while reading in the university library, Mugisha landed on a random book about the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and immediately picked interest in the organization’s work.

Months later, when the society organized a birding fare in Oakham, he decided to attend out of curiosity, travelling five hours by train to the venue.

“It is at this fare that I realized how big bird watching is in the UK,” explains Mugisha, a local tour operator and president of the Rwanda Birding Association.

“This prompted me to ask the question: Why not back home in Rwanda, which is also endowed with a diversity of bird species?”

At the fare, he talked passionately about Rwanda’s birding scene –the endemic species in the country, threats, success stories, the welcoming spirit of Rwandans and the tourism sector at large.

Although the first ever speaker from Rwanda at the fare, Mugisha managed to draw an attendance of over 70 people, which was a first, the organizers told him. Previously, first-time speakers drew only about 20 people.

Deep down, Mugisha knew that this was a golden opportunity to make a case for Rwanda’s fledgling avitourism sector in particular and tourism in general.

“I talked to some of the members, with a view to bringing some of them over to compare our birding with their own.”

But this was no easy task, Mugisha further explains, as most of the people he talked to had limited knowledge about Rwanda’s tourism, particularly the aspect of bird watching.

He followed this shortly after with another talk titled “Beyond Gorillas,” highlighting the variety of unique tourism packages on offer in Rwanda, besides the traditional gorilla tracking.

“Some of the people I talked to could not believe that birds even existed in Rwanda, thinking the country had lost all –including forests, during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.”

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School children savor the magic of the binoculars. (Courtesy)

Some response

Unknown to him, he was in for a long wait before the momentum eventually picked among the UK birders. From that time in 2000 when he gave the talk, it took five years of waiting before confirmation of a birding trip could come through, with four members of the society agreeing to make the trip down to Rwanda.

Asked why it took so long for a response to come through, Mugisha explained:

“Birders research a lot before they visit a new birding site. They do their investigations on things like security, hygiene, infrastructure, and above all, they research the possibility of finding rare birds.”

Typically, birders like to take their time looking at trip reports by other birders, the cost implications, and the quality of ground human resource (hospitality), while some hardcore birders look for “lifers” –rare species that birders want to see before they die.

“Because of all these reasons, they usually plan their trips at least three years ahead,” Mugisha said.

Early this week, the group comprising of Hillary McBean, Peter Osborne, Lesley and Eric jetted into the country ahead of a two-week birding expedition that will see them traverse the country in search of its unique bird species.

Their first birding stop was on Monday in Bugesera District, in the Eastern Province, one of the important birding areas in the country.

Here, they made their first major sightings, and by the time the trip wound up, they had collectively seen some 150 bird species. They also took time off to visit the local community based birding cooperative, the Bugesera Birding Club, where they shared their experiences and conducted a short workshop on best avitourism practices.

The session kicked off on a light and humorous note, with the visiting group asking why the cooperative members loved birds. One of the members explained that birds are important because they act as alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning, drawing prolonged laughter from the visitors.

“Within this short period we have seen a diversity of bird species, and I think it’s a good sign. It points to good environmental practices and peaceful co-existence between people and the environment. You can’t have this abundance of species where there is indiscriminate spraying of pesticides, industrial emissions, or hunting of birds,” said Hillary.

Earlier while trailing birds around Biryogo village where the cooperative is found, the group had been overwhelmed by the number of pupils from a nearby primary school who kept following the birders, asking for the opportunity to peer into the binoculars.

“We found school children on lunch break who we gave the binoculars and they just couldn’t go back to school,” Hillary added.

The group later gave out eight pairs of binoculars to the cooperative, a donation from the RSPB. On their part, the members of the cooperative promised to use the equipment both for learning and field purposes.

“We are trying to bring such big players here to learn from them. I’m particularly interested in their conservation practices: How do they manage to maintain important birding areas, with all the development around,” explained Mugisha, the host.

“The experience, knowledge, expertise and attitude they have is far beyond what we have in Rwanda, where bird watching is a relatively new product. We are trying to voice our efforts in avitourism to the people that matter the most. If these one million members of the RSPB can all tweet about Rwandan tourism, I think it’s quick, cheap and easy marketing for the country.”

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Mugisha (right) looks up a rare bird during the birding expedition. (Courtesy)

Diversification

During the training workshop, Mugisha explained the need for a multi-faceted approach:

“We want to start by offering birding as a complimentary package to gorilla tracking. The second step is to develop local capacity by training guides from around the different birding areas. The third is to encourage tour operators to sell avitourism as a unique product. At the moment we have only about two specialist birding tour operators in the country.”

He further underscored the need to cultivate a culture of frequent familiarization trips with advanced birding societies in Europe and the US, and improving information packaging and dissemination through use of fliers, brochures, checklists and maps, and using social media.

Speaking of the club’s achievements Mugisha said: “In 2014 they received 70 guests from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Europe and Asia. The purpose of the visits was purely for science and research. They also received 40 tourism students who paid Rwf1, 000 each for the visit.

Also, 64 students from the Rwanda Tourism University College did their internship here, while another three are currently on internship.”

Speaking about the challenges faced, the Vice President of the cooperative, Emmanuel Ndaruhutse cited the limited knowledge about bird watching by the various stakeholders as the biggest.

Other challenges faced were; mushrooming infrastructure that claims habitats for birds, lack of marketing and social media skills, the limited clientele at the moment, and the shortage of skilled birding guides.

About R SPBird

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a charitable organization registered in the UK. It was founded in 1889 by Emily Williamson, as the Plumage League.

The society works to promote conservation and protection of birds and the wider environment through public awareness campaigns, petitions, and through the operation of nature reserves throughout the United Kingdom.

It is the largest wildlife conservation non-profit in Europe, with over 1300 employees, 18 000 volunteers and more than 1 million members, making it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. It has many local groups and maintains a total of 200 nature reserves.

The Plumage League was founded by Emily Williamson as a pressure group against the use of bird skin and feathers to make fur clothing. The group gained popularity and eventually amalgamated with the Fur and Feather League in Croydon to form the RSPB.

The original members of the RSPB were all women who campaigned against the fashion of the time for women to wear exotic feathers in hats, and to this end the Society has two simple rules:

That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection.

That lady members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, with the ostrich as the only exception to this rule.

Today, the society continues to advocate for legislation to protect birds and their habitats. From a single reserve, the society’s protected lands have grown to more than 130,000 hectares (321,000 acres) in 200 nature reserves.

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