For over 5 years now have Rwandan conservation bodies, NGO s and individuals been working on their plans to restore Gishwati forest to its former glory, working hand in hand with The Great Ape Trust and other international partners. Rwanda as a country added to this once distant dream by implementing the forestry policy which prescribes an increase in forest cover across the country to 30 percent by 2020, a goal which is being incrementally achieved since the programme started 2 years ago.
Gishwati, which under the past regime was turned into an almost free for all as political favours were dished out without regard to the environmental consequences, allowing settlement and almost unrestricted felling of tropical hardwood trees for shortlived profits, was a shadow of its former self, when the present government took stock.
In times long gone, Gishwati extended to the West beyond Lake Kivu and joined to the great rainforests of the Congo, while to the South is was joined with Nyungwe Forest, itself in those days just part of the ancient forest belt extending into todays Kibira National park in Burundi and beyond. Presently, many of these forest systems have been fragmented, invaded by human settlements and unsustainably exploited, until their value was starting to be understood, as water towers, as sources of medicinal plants, of oxygen production and to store CO2, a key ingredient to slow down global warming.
With Rwandas keen interest to promote and maintain eco-tourism as a main pillar of the national economy it was long expected that Gishwati will eventually join the Nyungwe Forest as a new national park, incidentally part of a deal struck between President Kagame and the founder of the Great Ape Trust Ted Townsend some years ago and now well underway to become reality. With much over 600 hectares of previously degraded forest of Gishwati already replanted, and the success of Nyungwe National Park and its contribution to the local and national economies visible for all to see, it was learned from usually reliable sources that the upcoming budget for the 2012/13 financial year will contain provisions to turn Gishwati into a fully fledged national park.
When that happens, Rwanda will have four national parks, the most famous of them all Volcanoes where the prized mountain gorillas are found, Akagera, the countrys only savannah national park, and of course Nyungwe, a success story in its own right and now the focus of much global interest to explore the enchanted forest as dubbed by this correspondent in a previous feature article. Supporting the concept of a new national park are also the vicinity of birding trails, which have been developed outside the protected areas where visitors can go camera hunting for a rich variety of birds, and of course the Congo Nile Trail which was launched at the end of last year while running along the shores of Lake Kivu from Cyangugu to Gisenyi, is never too far away from the two forests into which loops off the main trail can be taken for hikes. This trail in particular is thought to hold one of the keys of Gishwatis success in the future as hikers from all over the world are now finding out about this new scenic trail, hiked or biked with relative ease, and no one coming all this way would leave out the opportunity to visit a forest national park, especially when rich in orchids, medicinal and other exotic tropical plants, rich in butterflies and other insects, a treasure cove for birding enthusiasts and then of course the chimpanzees, mankinds closest relative in open nature. Understandably this development has been kept under wraps until now, but as the budget preparations go into the final stages, it will soon become evident anyway that funds will be set aside for the establishment of a park administration and related services. Rumours, unconfirmed so far, even go as far as suggesting that a second canopy walk, similar to the hugely successful one in Nyungwe, is to be set up to make Gishwati into as much as a tourist magnet as Nyungwe has become. For this correspondent, the creation of a Gishwati Forest National Park will be a long awaited event and serves to underscore constantly voiced sentiments, that a committed and enlightened government can in fact change the future of a country for the better without trampling on its environment, destroying biodiversity and unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources.