My Summer Research Project: Bird Diversity in Gishwati Forest, Rwanda

Gishwati Forest of Gishwati-Mukura National Park

Two weeks ago I promised an update from the field, and after completing the necessary government permits and preparing for work in the forest, I’m finally ready to write about the summer project that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies requires of its Master of Environmental Management candidates. We can choose between completing an internship or independent research, and I opted for the latter, since I wanted the experience of designing my own field season and collecting data for scientific analysis for peer-reviewed publication, pursuing a subject that I’m both personally and academically interested in: tropical bird conservation. Now, with the generous support I’m grateful to receive as a fellow of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), and the University of Rwanda’s Center for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), I’ve started my project exploring a subset of montane avifauna distribution in the Albertine Rift.

The Albertine Rift in east Africa is an extremely biodiverse chain of tropical mountains and valleys, recognized as an Ecoregion by the World Wildlife Fund, an Endemic Bird Area by BirdLife International, and part of the world’s “10th most threatened forest hotspot” by Conservation International. Running through portions of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, the Albertine Rift is home to 33 endemic bird species, 17 of which are labeled as threatened by IUCN. Although there are several protected areas in the form of national parks or forest reserves across the region, human settlements and agricultural landscapes often directly abut park borders, and Rwanda has some of the highest rural population density on the continent. Across the Albertine Rift, land conversion for farming has already removed 38% of suitable habitat for the average endemic plant or vertebrate species. Given such habitat loss, islands of tropical montane forest like Rwanda’s Gishwati-Mukura National Park might represent the last refuges for several of these local bird species, some which are still poorly known.

The Rwenzori Batis, an Albertine Rift endemic.

Gishwati-Mukura National Park is comprised of two former forest reserves, Gishwati and Mukura, which are about 20km apart from each other in the Western Province of Rwanda and were signed into law as a park in early 2016. Together they amount to almost 3,500ha of forest, but due to mining, livestock grazing, and wood-cutting, a fair amount of the forest is degraded. Gishwati and Mukura forests used to be considered Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International, but given how drastically the reserves have shrunk, especially after a misguided World Bank cattle project in the 1980s and then the relocation of refugees after the genocide of 1994, both forests have been removed from that classification. Despite significant forest disturbance in the last century, both reserves are still home to many Albertine Rift endemic species, not only of birds but also plants, mammals, and herpetofauna.

A view of Gishwati from neighboring cattle pasture; you can see the lack of any real buffer between forest and human-altered landscape.

Gishwati in particular has a small population of chimpanzees (which in Rwanda are only in Nyungwe National Park otherwise) and golden monkeys (which in Rwanda are only in Volcanoes National Park otherwise). The government of Rwanda has discussed plans of restoring the park and connecting the two forest fragments with a corridor under the Landscape Approach to Forest Restoration and Conservation (LAFREC) project, but also needs to balance this mission with subsistence needs of local farming and ranching communities. These intentions make further study of the park’s avifauna and its relationship with the mosaic of forest and other land uses of interest both academically and for tangible conservation purposes.

The western core area of Gishwati forest, with our point count locations covered so far (all at least 200m apart from each other)

And so, for the last week, my Rwandan field assistant Claver—a highly experienced birder and park guide at Nyungwe National Park—and I have been surveying for birds in Gishwati forest. I’m hoping that comparing bird populations across this montane habitat and with prior observations will yield evidence for effects of forest size and degradation on certain types of birds, and provide valuable information on present avian diversity dynamics in a new national park that receives more scientific attention for its primates, especially chimps. General avian surveys have been conducted in Gishwati, but their results are primarily found in broader biodiversity reports that, while rich in data, are unpublished or unavailable online, making them difficult to access and lacking in the type of peer-reviewed rigor that is useful for data comparison. Together, Claver and I have so far covered 58 different points in or on the perimeter of Gishwati, and over these last eight days we’ve detected 115 different bird species, which already closely approaches the total tallies from aforementioned past surveys of the forest. As we continue to conduct point counts in the park, I’ll be keeping an eye on the differences between species that we’ve recorded this year compared to previous efforts, especially focusing on forest-dependent birds that can’t tolerate as much disturbance or degradation as more generalist species. We’re excited to see what new species we’ll find in the coming month!

A 6:00AM forest selfie before the hard work has started

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