Gorillas in Rwanda Photo
Mountain gorillas in the mist.
©Robert J Ross
Rwandan Landscape Photo
Rwanda has mountainous lands and is known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.”
©Rick Orlosky
Rwandan People Photo
Ecotourism is important to local economy.
©Robert J Ross

Despite a decade of war and environmental devastation, Rwanda has a long, proud conservation history. Rwanda's environment is a rich tapestry of habitats and its government is striving to build a post-conflict ecotourism industry. WCS staff maintained a presence throughout the country’s most tumultuous period, from 1990 to 1994, and began assisting in the reconstruction of facilities the following year.

Known affectionately as the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda has a mountainous landscape that includes the volcanic Virunga range in the northwest, home to what is estimated to be a third of the world’s remaining 750 mountain gorillas. About seven million people squeeze within Rwanda’s borders, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Forests, once extensive, are now concentrated in the western mountains and the Lake Kivu area, and include habitat for golden monkeys, hippos, giraffes, zebras, leopards, crocodiles, and nearly 600 species of birds. The most biologically diverse habitats lie within three protected areas: Volcanoes National Park, Akagera National Park, and Nyungwe National Park. Nyungwe includes the largest mountain rainforest in Africa and covers around 400 square miles of rugged terrain, ranging in elevation from 5,200–9,680 feet, including tall, closed-canopy forests, bamboo thickets, and open, flower-filled marshes.

Fast Facts

  • Before the war, tourism was the third highest source of foreign currency in Rwanda. Stunning mountain scenery and a great ape population made famous by Dian Fossey and the movie Gorillas in the Mist offer potential to renew this important industry.
  • Nyungwe National Park provides habitat for at least 275 species of birds; 140 species of orchids; 13 types of primates, including rare owl-faced monkeys; more than 400 endangered eastern chimpanzees; and black and white colobus monkeys, which sometimes travel together by the hundreds.
  • Human populations around Nyungwe live at some of the continent’s highest densities—up to 200 people per square mile.
  • The buffer zones surrounding much of the forest have been planted with pines to generate income for local communities and for use as firewood and building poles. Herbalists harvest medicinal plants from the forest, and beekeeping associations install hives at the edges of the park to produce high-quality honey.


Pressures resulting from human activities are the greatest threat to Rwandan wildlife. Rampant poaching of large mammals at Nyungwe has resulted in very low duiker numbers, the extirpation of buffalo as of the early 1980s, and the extinction of the park’s last elephants in 1999, when they were shot during a period of instability. Hunters now target smaller mammals, such as giant rats and squirrels, because they cannot find larger ones. Fires set by people wanting to smoke bees from wild hives have spread, and many hills have few or no trees as a result. At times, the mining of gold and, more recently, columbo-tantalite, have spawned the creation of large mining camps in the forests (some containing more than 3,000 people).

Although Rwanda is stable now, the threat of renewed political instability and the need for economic recovery are the primary concerns of the Rwandan government. This limits the government's ability to focus attention and resources on park management. Meanwhile, high human population densities and chronic rural poverty generate pressure to convert protected areas to farmland and grazing land and to exploit forest products such as bamboo and firewood, in addition to wildlife.

WCS Responds

Since 1994, WCS has worked in Rwanda to rebuild infrastructure and financing required for effective conservation, restore biodiversity in mountain forest protected areas, assess and survey wildlife populations, and educate the public about conservation. We also helping local communities find alternative, more sustainable sources of income. Prior to the genocide, WCS helped establish ecotourism focusing on mountain gorillas as a way to generate revenue and employment for local people and to help protect the gorillas and their habitat. The success of this effort reversed the gorillas’ decline and helped restore their numbers to 380 by 2004. Also in 2004, WCS assisted the government in the creation of Nyungwe National Park. WCS has strengthened the conservation of Nyungwe by promoting various tourist attractions and transboundary collaboration with Kibira National Park in Burundi. Nyungwe has a good network of moderate walking trails in its mountainous terrain, and WCS plans to develop a four-to-six-day walk in the forest to accommodate tourists who come to Rwanda and want to extend their stay.

WCS Projects

Ecoguards of Central Africa

As the eyes and ears for conservationists, ecoguards work not only to protect national parks and surrounding lands, but also to help evaluate the success of international conservation efforts.

From the Newsroom

A Chance for a ChimpJune 22, 2010

WCS and IUCN launch an international, decade-long action plan to protect eastern chimpanzees by safeguarding 16 crucial areas where their populations number around 48,000 individuals.

New Initiatives in the Congo BasinOctober 1, 2009

Congo Basin heads of state and conservation groups celebrate 10 years of success in saving the world’s second largest rainforest.

Bronx Zoo-goers Raise Millions for African ParksJuly 9, 2009

As it celebrates its tenth anniversary, the Bronx Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest has turned 7 million visitors into conservationists, and raised more than $10.6 million for conservation in Central Africa.

Chimp EdenSeptember 22, 2008

WCS facilitates an agreement between Rwanda and Burundi to protect the largest mountain forest block in East Africa—home to chimpanzees, owl-faced monkeys, and other endangered primates.

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