Things with Wings in Akagera National Park

The Lilac-breasted Roller is the star of Akagera, in my opinion (at least for the bird life), as a reliable and beautiful species that you can’t miss while visiting.

Over the last month and a half I’ve been immersed in my Gishwati bird research, so I have not been able to take as much time to write about experiences from the Rwanda Study Tour as much, but now that I’m back in the US, I have some better bandwidth to share media from places like Akagera National Park.

Akagera has the highest bird species richness in all of Rwanda, with literature about the park normally citing either high 400s or low 500s as the total tally. On eBird, there’s a number of different hotspots for the park, but the top three hotspots in the country are all in Akagera, with another two hotspots within the top ten.

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Mammals of Akagera National Park

Impala, zebras, topi, and waterbuck share this savanna scene in Akagera National Park

The next park we visited on the Rwanda Study Tour after Nyungwe was Akagera National Park. Although the park was created in 1934, it’s only been run by a partnership between the Rwandan government and an NGO called African Parks—which helps manage about fifteen parks on the continent—since 2010. At this point, a change in operation style and protection started to help wildlife bounce back as well as increase visitation to the park. Back in 2010, the park hosted around fifteen thousand visitors per year and only made about $200,000 (while losing money), but last year the park received thirty-six thousand visitors and made $2,000,000 (getting out of the red for the first time).

A zebra gives itself a dustbath while a impala, two topi, and a warthog watch on

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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.

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Village Weavers at Lake Ihema, Akagera National Park

On the shore of almost any body of water in Akagera National Park in the east of Rwanda, trees festooned with balls of dried grass are a common sight, although what will often draw your attention to these trees first is not the strange vegetation, but the cacophony of a dozen or more weaver birds chattering away as they bring strands of grass to build these nests, display to potential mates, or warn of possible predators. The species featured here, the Village Weaver Ploceus cucullatus, is a fairly common bird in this region, and entertained us with their craft on the day that we visited Lake Ihema, the second largest lake in Rwanda after Lake Kivu to the west.

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Wildlife Conservation Society and Nyungwe

A view from inside Nyungwe National Park

When I came into the master of environmental management program at Yale FES, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) wasn’t really on my radar as a big international conservation NGO — other names like the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, or Flora and Fauna International came to mind first. As I started to learn about the biodiversity hotspot of East Africa’s Albertine Rift, however, WCS programs and technical reports started to come up more and more, and the professional experience shared by my professors Amy and Bill in their class (Building a Conservation Toolkit: From Project Design to Evaluation) led to many discussions about their work with WCS.

As part of the Rwanda Study Tour, we met with WCS employees in Kigali and two towns neighboring Nyungwe National Park called Gisakura and Kitabi. These Rwandans, some of whom had been with the NGO for over fifteen years, told us about the conservation efforts carried out by WCS in the region, much of which revolves around capacity building, scientific monitoring, and community education and engagement. For example, since the nineties WCS has been recording phenological data from native trees and vegetation in Nyungwe, which can be a valuable reference for seasonal variations in plants affected by climate change. WCS has also trained park rangers on different data collection methods that have improved monitoring systems in the park to document cases of poaching efforts such as wire snares, which are still a major threat to the small forest antelopes that live in Nyungwe.

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Primates of Nyungwe National Park

from the Uwinka Visitor Center of Nyungwe National Park

The first national park that the Yale FES Rwanda Study Tour visited was Nyungwe, in the south of the country bordering Burundi’s Kibera National Park. A montane tropical forest spanning over a thousand square kilometers, Nyungwe is quite biodiverse, and while it used to host elephants, water buffalo, and leopards, many other mammals are still present in the forest, including thirteen species of primate. Of these, we were able to see eight: vervet monkeys, l’Hoest’s mountain monkeys, blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, mona monkeys, a single olive baboon, and eastern chimpanzees. This was fairly lucky, as the only primates we missed were the owl-faced monkeys, which are shy and restricted to the bamboo groves in a remote part of the park, red-tailed monkeys, which I know nothing about, and three species of galago, which are very small nocturnal primates sometimes called bushbabies, of controversial cuteness. I’ve included some of my photos below:

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A Summer in Rwanda

I’ve already been here a month, and Crist has shared some of my photos from brief missives that I’ve sent home, so I am overdue for an explanation of what I’m doing in Rwanda this summer.

A view from the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali

At first I was in the country with four classmates from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES) and our professor, Dr. Amy Vedder, who started working in Rwanda back in the late seventies, studying mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park and, with her husband Dr. Bill Weber, helped set up the tourism program that has now become the cornerstone of the country’s economy. The six of us were participating in the Rwanda Study Tour, an opportunity for five Yale FES students to learn about conservation as practiced in this tiny nation of twelve million people.

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Trick Question From Rwanda

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A recent message from Rwanda, in spite of what I said about Seth being plenty verbal, was as quiet as what you see above. Amie, whose eye inclines this way and makes sure our platform shares stories like this, thought it was the fruit we were supposed to guess the identity of. Because of my coffee focus of the last year, and Seth’s experience planting coffee, I immediately thought it was about whatever pest might be ravaging the leaves. Neither. Continue reading

Rwanda, Third Message

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The image above was taken after the last giraffe photo, but I do not know where. Today Seth sent more photos after he and his colleagues hiked up, through a national park, to the upper reaches of a volcano.

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Hiked to the summit of Visoke volcano in the national park, the toughest hike I’ve done just for elevation (got up to 3711 meters asl) through the wettest slush mud

Seth is plenty verbal. But under these circumstance I appreciated the parsimony of words in his message accompanying the photos. I have been at that altitude and it does not encourage chit chat.

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We have lived and worked in beautiful places; again, all I can say is I look forward to Ghana.

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And again, my favorite image is not the one I would have expected.

Rwandan Charismatic Megafauna (& Honey)

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Seth sent a few more messages, in the form of images, from Rwanda. One day soon I will describe what he is doing there, but for now the images say more than enough.

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While elephants are a childhood favorite animal for Seth, he had seen Asian elephants in the wild, so that probably made seeing giraffe the charismatic topper so far.

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Once zebra is added to the list of species seen, it might start feeling like all is well in the wild (even if we know it is not).

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Waterbuck with African Fish-Eagle

One of the few photos that had any words to explain was this one, which is to be expected of a birder in the realm of charismatic megafauna.

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But of all the photos, the one that caught my eye was the one above, which I do not yet have an explanation for but it is in surrounded by the following photos which put it in some context.

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That gives a hint.

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This answers the question.

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And this makes it crystal clear. Seth had already sent an image from an earlier field visit that he knew would catch my attention.

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The origins of Organikos can be traced to a project I led in 2005 in Paraguay, where I had the idea that wild-hunted honey from the Pantanal region could share the taste of place with the world while at the same time providing much-needed cash infusion to the honey hunters and the protection of their wilderness areas. Seth knows that story and knows to send me photos of honey from wild places as a polite indication that the idea was a good one, if not original.

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Visual Notes From Rwanda

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Seth is in Rwanda, and until now only one of his photos was posted here. His last written post on this platform was about a year ago, when he was preparing for graduate school, but since then dozens of his photographs have been shared here as bird of the day. I do not expect him to have time to share written description here of his work in Rwanda, so I will share some of the photos he is sending us.

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I do not know where these places are, yet. But I hope to hear soon.

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La Paz Group was part of a consortium a decade ago competing for a project, funded by USAID, to assist Rwanda’s government with planning for the future of nature-based tourism. Our proposal was not the winning proposal, so I did not have the chance to see the country in person. Yet. But based on these photos, I will.

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My last long term assignment in Africa was in Ghana. My last prospecting for a long term assignment was in Ethiopia. Both of those countries are worthy of revisiting, and I intend to do so. But Rwanda has jumped to the top of the must visit list in Africa.

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What is not visible in any of these photos is Seth’s encounters with wildlife. I have heard about gorillas, chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and plenty of bird species. He has sent pictures of wildflowers, mushrooms, ants. Not just any ants. Driver Ants! But for now, the bucolic natural and manicured landscapes are enough to convince me.

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All In, Eliminating Plastic Bags, Rwanda Is A Leader

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By The New York Times

Thanks to the New York Times for this success story from a small country in Africa that has been working its way steadfastly to global leadership, quietly but surely for the last decade-plus. Eliminating plastic bags from a country seems impossible, until you read how it was done:

GISENYI, Rwanda — They are sometimes tucked into bras, hidden in underwear or coiled tightly around a smuggler’s arms.

They’re not narcotics or even the illegally mined gold and diamonds that frequently make it across the border into Rwanda. But they are, at least in the eyes of Egide Mberabagabo, a watchful border guard, every bit as nefarious.

The offending contraband? Plastic bags.

“They’re as bad as drugs,” said Mr. Mberabagabo, one of a dozen border officials whose job it is to catch smugglers and dispose of the illicit plastic he finds. Continue reading