How birding is evolving into a booming tourist attraction for Rwanda

Two weeks before the country’s flagship tourism event, Kwita Izina on September 5, another Rwandan tourism success story had unfolded –this time at the British Birdwatching Fair in the far off Rutland Nature Reserve in the UK.
A volunteer from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds explains a point to a visitor to the Rwandan stand. (Courtesy)
A volunteer from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds explains a point to a visitor to the Rwandan stand. (Courtesy)

Two weeks before the country’s flagship tourism event, Kwita Izina on September 5, another Rwandan tourism success story had unfolded –this time at the British Birdwatching Fair in the far off Rutland Nature Reserve in the UK. 

Organised by the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Bird Fair is the biggest international annual wildlife event in the world, and each year, attracts a crowd of over 50.000 keen birders from across the globe.

The fair encompasses the entire value chain of the bird watching industry whilst at the same time supporting global bird conservation efforts.

At the fair, there are hundreds of stands selling a variety of birding and wildlife goodies –from birding equipment like cameras and binoculars, birding books, to clothing.

The event further draws a huge influx of tour companies either selling or exhibiting their wares, besides attending lectures, workshops and networking, among other attractions.

Typically, it attracts professionals, people of middle age, and those that have retired -people who have saved some money and are willing to travel.

Although the very first fair was held way back in 1989, this year’s was the first that Rwanda had been invited to.

There were three joint exhibitors from Rwanda; Wildlife Tours Rwanda, Sunrise Echo Tours, and Nyungwe Forest Lodge, who travelled under the auspices of the Rwanda Development Board and the Rwanda Birding Association.

“We were glad Rwanda was represented, because people always get excited whenever they hear about bird watching in Rwanda other than the gorillas and genocide stories which they’ve heard a lot about,” explained Davidson Mugisha, who owns an echo tourism company, Wildlife Tours Rwanda.

Mugisha was head of the Rwandan delegation to the fair.

He first attended the fair in 2009, that time as a volunteer. At the time, he was pursuing his Masters of Science in Conservation and Tourism at the University of Kent. The following year, he attended the bird fair again, still as a volunteer.

In 2011, he started attending the event as an exhibitor, and has never looked back since.

“To see Rwanda showcasing over 730 bird species at the bird fair was something interesting for most people who came to our stand,” Mugisha explains.

At the fair, he says, it was all about flying Rwanda’s tourism flag high:

“The reason we were there is because you just have to be patriotic about your country, and try to sell it beyond gorillas, and trying to make sure that people know the reality and the facts about your country. We do not want to wait for someone to speculate and write something which is not true. Of course, there was business to get from it.”

The Rwandan team was supplemented by a handful of volunteers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the organisers of the event.

“We gave public speeches and lectures about Rwandan birds, and also did a survey among keen birders asking them what they expect if they come to Rwanda.

We also held a competition for people to win a book called ‘Wild Rwanda’, which was launched in March this year, according to Mugisha. 

Pertinent issues:

As pertains to bird watching in Rwanda, fair goers who visited the Rwandan stand wanted to know how safe the country is, what kind of birding infrastructure is in place, the availability of trained and professional birding guides, and issues to do with accommodation, flights, and tour itineraries. Others wanted to know what unique products Rwanda has in terms of birds; the endemics and the rare species in the country.

“We informed them that Rwanda is a small country but the infrastructure is good. Being a small country, it has what is called ecological niches for birds, which supports the activity of bird watching.”

Out of Rwanda’s total land mass of 26,338 square km, half of it is wetland. The country has a total of 23 lakes, which provide water, shelter and food for birds.

Out of a total 730 species recorded, 44 are Albertine Rift Endemics, of which 27 are found in Nyungwe, and 17 in the Volcanoes National Parks.

“Rwanda is known as a birding paradise with more than 700 bird species, and considering its small size, we are considered as a country with the highest concentration of birds,” explains Fautsin Karasira, the head of tourism department at RDB.

“But it’s useless to have these birds without the market knowing about them. The reason for considering the UK is that it’s known worldwide as a place with many keen birders, therefore we had to meet them at their home,” he adds.

Two years ago, his department developed a national birdwatching strategy, which entails the three aspects of conservation, marketing, and product development and since then, embarked on aggressively promoting Rwanda as a bird watching destination.

Karasira explains that with the success of Rwanda’s stand at the UK Bird Fair, similar possibilities and forums are being sought elsewhere, like the US.

Birding successes in Rwanda:

Today, the biggest number of tourists to Rwanda, especially those who go to the Nyungwe and Akagera National Parks are looking for birds, which before wasn’t the case as they only focused on the animals –chimpanzees in Nyungwe and the game drive in Akagera.

This has been possible in part due to the development of seven Important Birding Areas (IBAs) across the country. Besides the Akagera, Nyungwe and Volcanoes national parks there is Gishwati-Mukura, Rugyezi swamp area, Nyabarongo, and the Kigali Golf Course.

“From the consultancy we did ten years ago, if we develop avitourism, Rwanda could earn up to $12m from bird watching alone,” reckons Davidson Mugisha, whose tour company, Wildlife Tours Rwanda has a fully-fledged avitourism department.

He believes that Rwanda has got just the right infrastructure to do that, “but we have been focusing so much on gorillas, hence the need for diversification.”

“When people come for gorilla tracking it’s one day and they are gone. A birder usually will never spend less than four days at one site.

Akagera and Nyungwe are four days on average. That’s eight days. Rugyezi and Volcanoes is like three days each. Add Nyabarongo and others. That’s another three days. Add to that coming and going –and that’s about sixteen days.”

This is due to the fact that each habitat is endowed with different species of birds.

Unlike gorilla tracking that follows one standard package, bird watching can be done many ways.

If you decide to do it from the national parks, you get to pay for the activity in the park, and also for the guide. If you do it outside the national parks, in what are otherwise called important bird areas, there are community guides and birding cooperatives, and you pay directly to them.

The cooperatives are registered with RDB, and have their records. Every month they report about their incomes and expenditure to RDB.

This is how the local communities benefit from this activity.

 

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