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Visit Rwanda and experience the golden monkeys, endemic birds, and natural beauty

Western Rwanda’s degraded Gishwati Forest is slowly being brought back to life.

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It’s difficult to think of a more exhilarating experience than witnessing a primate in its natural home, behaving according to animal kingdom norms. Even an environmentalist like Thierry Aimable Inzirayineza, who regularly comes into contact with wildlife while working in the Gishwati Forest, was shocked when we discovered an L’Hoest’s monkey sitting on a mound of dirt on the forest floor. Inzirayineza’s Forest of Hope Foundation, which oversees the primate-habituation project in Gishwati with the aim of acclimating animals to human visitors, scored a minor success with the sighting. The monkey, which usually hid in the forest canopy when people were close by, said, “He is not afraid,” to Inzirayineza. “This shows that our efforts are having an impact.”

With the exception of Inzirayineza and a tracker by the name of Innocent Mutangana, my husband Mark and I had the entire jungle to ourselves. This included the fluting tropical boubou birds, the drooping crimson amaranthus petals, and the roaring waterfalls. We were some of the first foreign visitors to Gishwati, the newest park to join Rwanda’s quickly expanding ecotourism circuit.

The refuge is situated in the Albertine Rift, one of Africa’s most biodiverse regions, which spans nearly 1,000 miles from Zambia to Uganda. Sadly, after decades of poaching and clear-cutting by farmers and cattle ranchers, the forest, which once encompassed more than 250,000 acres, was further reduced after the 1994 genocide. Following that disaster, which resulted in the massacre of more than 800,000 Rwandans, many refugees who had been living in neighboring nations moved in Gishwati, turning the forest into farmland in the process. Only 1,500 acres, or less than 1% of the original forest area, were still there twenty years ago, along with a few chimpanzees, L’Hoest’s, and golden monkeys.

Pioneer in ecotourism Wilderness Safaris hit the scene about the same time. Operations manager Ingrid Bass told me, “We had one glance and felt, we need to conserve this forest. The corporation was given a 25-year lease by the Rwandan government to run the tourism concession. The goal is to increase Gishwati Forest’s current size of roughly 4,000 acres by another 2,500. The forest is still only a small portion of what it once was, but it is still big enough for populations of primates to comfortably roam and breed there.

In Gishwati, there are now 35 chimpanzees as opposed to the estimated 10 there were ten years ago. More than 172 golden monkeys now reside there, up from 100 in 2014, according to the most recent census, which was conducted in 2018. Along with 232 different bird species, 20 of which are exclusively found in the Albertine Rift, L’Hoest’s monkeys are thriving.

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Our SUV rattled through tidy concrete settlements and fields of grazing sheep during the four-hour trip from Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to Gishwati where we eventually arrived at the two-room Forest of Hope guesthouse. Our accommodations were simple but clean, with kitenge-cloth bedspreads and Rwandan mats and baskets as accents. I sat on the terrace overlooking the blue-gray Mount Matyazo and sipped bitter Rwandan black tea while a purple-breasted sunbird sang in the distance as rain started to stir the jungle.

Wilderness Safaris does not own or run the guesthouse; instead, it trains Forest of Hope in all facets of hospitality, from the layout of the common area with its mocha leather chairs to the delicious meals served on the patio in the sunshine. Wilderness Safaris plans to build a larger lodge in the park in the coming years. We had handmade bread, vinegary cucumbers, roast chicken and potatoes for lunch along with a lemon posset pastry.

In the early 20th century, German and Belgian missionaries and colonial officials introduced eucalyptus trees to Gishwati, as with many other woods in Rwanda, to stop soil erosion and provide quick-growing lumber. Even though the trees have a wonderful scent, the primates cannot consume the fruit they produce. The eucalyptus trees that are currently being clear-cut for building materials and firewood are being replaced with native myrianthus, ficus, and Dombeya trees, which all offer food for the local fauna. Under the management of Wilderness Safaris, more than 10,000 have already been planted, and a further 10,000 are anticipated to be added over the course of 2022.

I got up early to contribute to the habituation of the primates. According to Bass, animals become more at ease around us — and our wildlife-seeking cameras — the more people with diverse skin and hair colors they encounter. With just your presence, you are truly contributing to the growth of this event, she remarked.

We started out in quest of golden monkeys because chimpanzees are typically more elusive (and rarer in this park) than they are. The golden monkeys were in sight, Mutangana learned from the bushes after a strenuous hour of hiking on freshly cut routes. Then, we witnessed a large male, roughly the size of a large dog, leap from a massive carapa tree into a group of treetops. Another, with long, strong limbs, swiped a clutch of bamboo and swung across the woodland canopy. We observed two bronze-coated females hanging side by side in a parasol tree as four males descended a limb in single file, seemingly choreographed. We observed eight people from this group in total as they went about their daily activities in the woods. The sight was very amazing to us.

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We continued down to a waterfall that was far away. Inzirayineza thought about his vision for this special location that, thanks to his efforts, is coming back to life as he guided us down the pathways he had assisted in establishing. No one would have believed what we see now ten years ago, he remarked. I simply want a visitor to say, “I am here, by myself, in this native woodland.” He was right when he said that my experience that morning was just as unique and meaningful.

Fharwanda.org; Forest of Hope guesthouse, including park permits, from $250 per person.

Under the heading “New Growth,” a version of this article initially appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure.