The Nyungwe Forest National Park, which was established in 2004, covers an area of approximately 970 km² of rainforest, bamboo, grassland and swamps. Nyungwe forest has a wide diversity of animal species with over 13 different primate species (25% of Africa's total), 275 bird species, 1068 plant species, 85 mammal species, 32 amphibian and 38 reptile species.
Before the formation of the 'Friends of Nyungwe Cooperative', the communities around the forest encroached on the forest leading to issues such as fire outbreaks and poaching. One of the community-based tourism activities being carried out to protect and preserve Nyungwe Forest National Park is Kitabi Cultural Village, which was set up by the people living around the forest.
In an interview with The New Times, Jean Baptist Bazambaza, the Public Relations Officer of Kitabi Cultural Village, explained how community-based tourism has changed the livelihoods of the people lving around the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
"Friends of Nyungwe Cooperative started in 2009 but the Kitabi Cultural village was put in place in September 2011. These are initiatives that were set up so as to solve the problems faced by the community, thereby protect the forest," Bazambaza says.
He said stated that the wellbeing of the community is improving while, at the same time, the forest is protected from dangerous activities such as charcoal burning and poaching.
"Communities around the forest have been sensitised on the benefits of tourism. For example , Kitabi Cultural Village was constructed to uphold community based tourism as well as promote and conserve the core values of the Rwandan culture. The revenue attained is distributed amongst the 60 cooperative members, 20 of whom are women," Bazambaza explains.
Entrance to Kitabi Cultural Village is $20 to $40 for local and foreign tourists, respectively. Accommodation per night at the traditional hut costs $40, while touring the Kings Palace, which also involves viewing activities such as traditional milk preservation, local food preparation and target shooting using a bow and arrow costs $20.
According to Rick Masubuko, the tour guide of Kitabi Cultural Village, most tourists book in advance before the actual visit.
"Although we get many walk-in-tourists the record number of tourists that come usually book in advance. Some even spend nights in the traditional houses to get a feel of the ancient times," Masubuko explains.
Besides being welcomed by a traditional dance troupe known as Abahizi, tourists are also taught how to prepare Rwandan dishes while also enjoying the local brew. Another activity that is carried out is bee keeping and it is done the traditional way, with a beehive constructed using banana fibres and wood.
Vincent Sikubwabo, a member of Friends of Nyugwe Cooperative said that the money from the cultural village is helping to improve their lives.
"We don't poach or burn charcoal anymore. In fact, everyone keeps an eye on anyone who tries to encroach on the forest and they are reported to the officials in charge. Our venture is growing gradually and in future we hope that Friends of Nyungwe can construct a hotel for tourists who come to visit Kitabi Cultural Village," Sikubwayo explains.
He said, "The main challenge we are still facing is lack of piped water and electricity although the project to cater for this issue is in place and hopeful by the end of this year it will have been addressed."
Norbert Karegire, Community Conservation Warden Nyugwe National Park, explained the various steps the communities around Nyungwe Forest National Park have taken to protect the park.
"We made communities realise that poaching or charcoal burning in the park affects them directly. We showed them that it's like trying to cut a branch of a tree yet you are sitting on it," says Karegire.
He further said that the cases of encroaching on the forest have reduced as a result of community based tourism.
"We have constantly sensitised communities on the benefits of protecting forests. There is also support from Rwanda Development Board under the Revenue Sharing Programme. For instance, Friends of Nyugwe Cooperative was given ten Million Rwandan Francs to start up the Cultural Village. The cooperative gained connections and support from other partners such as USAID," Karegire adds.