Wildlife in Rwanda

Rwanda lost a lot of national parks to poaching and agriculture but the country is very, very passionate about conservation. They maintain and they grow, they think about how they can have more. It’s a very small country, but very committed to conservation
– Miriam Kyasiimire, Kagera Safaris
“Every time you’re out there it’s like seeing them for the first time – the first day you’re out there you’re like wow! And the next day you’re like: WOW!”

This is Miriam Kyasiimire of our partner Kaghera Safaris, based in Uganda. She loves running wildlife holidays so much that she tries to go on as many of her own trips as she can. Last year, this meant venturing into Akagera National Park in Rwanda with two English ladies, where they met with a herd of elephants.

“One of the ladies asked – do you guys reach a point like ‘ah, it’s just elephants’? And we told them: no, we never get that point.”

Over the last 18 years, Akagera National Park, Rwanda’s only savannah ecosystem park, has been transformed from an empty wilderness to a fenced park where you can see all of the Big Five. It’s part of a nationwide series of conservation successes in a country that prides itself on the quality of its ecotourism.

What wildlife does Rwanda have?

Whilst the wildlife density is lower than star safari settings like Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, thanks to remarkable conservation efforts you can see the Big Five in Rwanda, plus lots of hippos and bison at Akagera National Park, and over 500 of Rwanda’s 700 species of birds. And, unlike busy Ngorongoro, you’re likely to have the experience to yourself.

In Nyungwe National Park you can count 13 species of primate – including elegant colobus monkeys and large troops of habituated chimpanzees (chimps that have become accustomed to human visitors through careful introduction). Best known for wildlife in the country is Volcanoes National Park. On the fringes of the park’s forest, golden monkeys, rarely seen outside Rwanda, play in the bamboo. Then, as you climb deeper into the trees, something bigger awaits – Rwanda is one of the best places in the world to see mountain gorillas.

What’s so special about Rwanda’s wildlife?

There aren’t many places where you can see the Big Five, plus chimpanzees and gorillas, so easily, in such a small area, and with upmarket lodgings to boot.

Rwanda’s wildlife has compelled for decades. In 1967, Dian Fossey, who went on to write Gorillas in the Mist, was so keen to travel to study gorillas here that she endured – and eventually succumbed to – decades of threats from violent poachers in order to stay out in the field. Seeing the gorillas now comes with far less risk attached, though for many the experience is no less moving.

Miriam of Kagera Safaris has witnessed guests in floods of tears when they come face to face with a silverback, “The first times I went along I’d think, ‘what’s happening?’” she says, “but I started appreciating that it’s something unique to see, that someone has saved for a long time to be able to do.”

Hard-won success

Conserving Rwanda’s wildlife has not come easily, and that’s part of what makes it so special. Just over 20 years ago, Akaghera Park was only half its current size, The park was once called ‘Parc aux Lycaons’ because of its huge Africa wild dog (in French, ‘Lycaon’) population. But it lost the dogs in the 1980s due to diseases like rabies and a fatal viral affliction called canine distemper. Half the park’s area was reallocated to families who resettled in the area after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, bringing over 30,000 cattle with them. When lions began killing the cattle, furious cattle owners poisoned the lions in retaliation. Poaching was rife.

At the turn of the millennium all the lions were gone from Akagera. By 2007, so had all the rhino. There was a similar story in Volcanoes National Park. In 2008, the gorillas were critically endangered; poaching, illegal cultivation and tree felling threatening their existence.

Then in 2009, the Rwandan government enlisted support from Africa Parks – a charity founded in 2000 to reverse the startling decline of Africa’s protected areas. Africa Parks now helps run two of Rwanda’s four national parks. Akagera was fenced. Lions were reintroduced in 2015, and black rhino followed in 2017; the park now had the full complement of the Big Five again.

Whilst the wild dogs aren’t back – yet, since 2010 the number of animals in the park has doubled. Lake Ihema bubbles with hippos. There are huge herds of bison, and, of course, people are blown away when they see the burgeoning elephant population.
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Increasing protection

Other parts of the country are coming under protection. Gishwati-Mukura National Park, created in 2015, became a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2020, partly thanks to the efforts of conservation organisation Forest Of Hope Association. The park contains small populations of primates.

Elsewhere in Rwanda, organisations like the World Conservation Trust are working hard to stop habitat-threatening deforestation. Gorillas came off the IUCN critically endangered list in 2018. It’s an exciting time to visit.

The Rwandan government has big plans to conserve 37 percent of land in the country – the biodiversity summit at COP15 in Montreal set a target for 30 percent by 2030. Rwanda’s gorilla population is now so healthy that the park needs to grow to accommodate them all – the plan is to expand the Volcanoes National Park by 23 percent.

However, as Rwanda plans to expand its reserves, it must also consider its people.

“When you don’t depend on agriculture it’s easy to be aloof” says Miriam. “‘Oh, they should just leave the elephants!’ – but this person plants their garden, plants, beans, maize and it takes three months to grow – an elephant can destroy it in a day.”

Man versus monkey

One of the best places to track chimpanzees in Rwanda is Cyamudongo Forest, near Nyungwe National Park. You only need to glance at the forest on a map to see why this is a great place to see them; the small forest is completely encircled by tea plantations (one of Rwanda’s most profitable exports); the chimps have nowhere else to go.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental Africa. There is very little buffer between villages and parks; people live and practise subsistence farming right on the edges of park boundaries. This can lead to conflict between people and animals.

Large troops of golden monkey can ransack farms – and there are bigger visitors too. Whilst we all want to see an elephant, you wouldn’t want one as a neighbour.

Conflict between animals and people is an emotive issue. Before Akagera National Park was fenced, hippos had been known to kill people.

According to the World Conservation Society, the leading cause of deforestation in the country’s Nyungwe Forest is wildfires caused by people smoking out bees in the process of illegal honey harvesting within the national park boundary. Poaching continues in the parks – and gorillas sometimes become unintended victims of snares set for bushmeat. Other poachers have their eyes on bigger prizes – such as rhino horns. In Akagera, there are anti poaching dogs on patrol.

Our partner Pioneer Expeditions take guests on a ‘behind the fence’ tour of Akagera. “The electric fence plays a big role in protecting the park from poachers and preventing wildlife from leaving the park,” explains Ninah Mutamuliza, a Rwandan tour consultant for Kingfisher Journeys, who run tours with Pioneer Expeditions, “Conflict has reduced significantly since the introduction of the fencing.”

The quest to find space for Rwanda’s wildlife comes at a cost to its people. Controversially, in 2021 the Rwanda Development Board announced that the expansion of Volcanoes National Park would displace 3,000 Rwandan families. There is a bigger picture here. Behind the clean streets and highways, and the growing abundance of its national parks, on some corners of the world stage the Rwandan government is criticised for the rigorous control of its people, who do not often speak up about reality behind the glossy tourist board images.
There’s no conservation without people
– Steve Venton, director of Kingfisher Journeys

Money for local people

It’s vital that local people benefit if they are expected to live very close to very large animals – or indeed are expected to move to let them live.

Improved access to Rwanda’s parks has indirectly benefitted people who live nearby. “It’s not just the people who use these national parks that use the roads,” explains Miriam from Kagera Safaris, “The road is how Rwandans go to their homes, to their trades, to their school – it’s a direct benefit to that part of the country, whether you’re involved in tourism or not.”

But there are very important direct benefits too. The rising ranks of Rwandan wildlife has brought tourists – and local jobs. “Ten years ago the accommodations were run down, there were so few,” says Miriam. “It was hard to find local staff who were skilled in hospitality, but now you have many who are learning and taking interest.”

The tourism industry is unrecognisably classy now. There are wilderness retreats with yoga decks and gin bars and lodges with buffets and welcome massages. Before the pandemic, tourist numbers were ever increasing.

Community-based tourism projects are finding ways for the local communities around parks to profit. At Gishwati-Mukura National Park, visitors are required to stay at least one night in a community-run lodge, so that local people profit from the park. This is no hardship. Steve Venton, director of Kingfisher Journeys, runs trips with our partner Pioneer Expeditions. He moved out to Rwanda in 2015 and has chartered the national park’s rise in that time.

“It’s a lovely place to stay,” says Steve, “You may not be guaranteed to see all the wildlife but if you’re willing to accept that, you’re in a really wonderful place, and you’re giving back to the community.”Gorilla permits are expensive because the funds are invested back into conservation. But ten percent of gorilla permit profits go to villages on the edge of the parks. “Local communities in cooperations receive a certain amount per year – which they spend on whatever they’ve best at,” says Miriam, “Whether that’s giving out affordable loans – helping people start crafting businesses – or they have a small lodge where guests can come and stay.”

One such place, visited by Miriam’s groups, is Gorilla Guardians Village, where former poachers now welcome tourists and make better money from tourism. “One of the former rangers started it and started educating them – saying, look you can earn much more from tourism, instead of risking the business of poaching, where you could get caught”. There are also compensation schemes set up for crops damaged by animals.

Direct impact

Compensation and community funding is powerful. But nothing protects nature like direct profit earned by those best placed to protect it, “It goes a long way towards them being involved in the conservation.” Miriam explains. This is where tourism really comes into its own.

It might be something as simple as a visitor buying a pot of local honey, sustainably farmed outside the forest. Tourists coming to Nyungwe Forest or Volcanoes National Park are given the option of using a local porter to carry their bags. This is optional, but it allows people from villages surrounding the parks to earn money that day, rather than waiting months for returns on their planted crops.

Kingfisher Journeys try to pay people from the community as much as possible, “We also use lots of local people to help us with the logistics that we do,” says Steve, “I could just use the guide that we have to move the canoes but we want to give back to local people so we hire them to move the equipment.”

Unlike the cash given by tourists to porters, employment of this kind is paid by MoMo – mobile money – a mobile payments system accessed by your smartphone, which is better regulated by the government, “Because Rwanda has a very good system of ID cards, even a small job – even for a small amount of money given for a one-off job, we collect their ID number and we pay to the government their pension maternity cover and health cover.”

You can’t put a price on Rwanda’s wildlife – but your money, put in the right hands, can have a direct impact on its protection.

Best animals to see in Rwanda

Golden monkeys

Their coats more reddish than gold, these monkeys are blissfully unaware of their rarity. You’ll see them playfully springing from the ground up into the trees, and back again, and tearing into bamboo poles to eat the seemingly unpalatable fibrous innards.

How to see them: You can see golden monkeys in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, where a habituated population of around 200 monkeys can be found. Tracking expeditions happen in the morning. The way is less hard going than trekking to see gorillas, as these monkeys tend to hang out on the edges of the forest. But be prepared for photography on the hoof – they move fast!

Colobus monkeys

Surely the rockstars of the monkey world in their monochrome fringed jackets, Colobus are charismatic and very compelling to watch. Ironically, their colouring is thought to help them blend into the forest, not stand out – it’s the same disruptive colouring used by zebra to confuse lions.

How to see them: They’re found in Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park in enormous groups, and in Volcanoes National Park. Unlike some primates, you can trek to see them in the morning or afternoon.


You’ll need to pick up the pace if you want to watch a chimpanzee. When they decide to move, they can melt into the thick forest like butter through a crumpet. They’ll be in the trees, or down on the forest floor – the latter means you can study their faces, with their astonishingly familiar expressiveness – and they’ll be studying you too.

How to see them: Nyungwe Forest and the smaller neighbouring Cyanmudongo Forest. Like gorillas, Rwanda’s chimpanzees have been ‘habituated’ – which means they are used to being watched by visitors.


The stars of the show. People save up for years to be able to visit Rwanda’s mountain gorillas – via a permit system, which allows you to sit with the animals for an hour in their natural habitat. Individual gorillas who have been studied their whole lives, and their troupes have biographies with Shakespearean casts: rulers, heroes, usurpers, mothers and outcasts.

How to see them: Volcanoes National Parks – our dedicated Gorilla watching guide has more.


Black rhino were reintroduced to Akagera National Park in 2017, completing the park’s endeavour to reclaim the Big Five. In 2021, a record breaking 30 white rhino were moved here at the same time from South Africa – a massive vote of confidence in the park.

How to see them: You’ll be very lucky to see one. There are only a few individuals still in the park.


The reintroduction of lions to Akagera is nothing short of inspirational – the king of the jungle reclaiming his rightful throne, the park’s recently-installed fences keeping any adjacent livestock and people safe, and, counterintuitively, leaving the lions free to thrive.

How to see them: If you don’t see them in the day in Akagera National Park, night drives might reveal them under the cover of darkness – and possibly leopards, too.

Grey crowned cranes

We had to include a bird. Three of Rwanda’s national parks are designated Important Birding Areas – with 700 species of birds between them. Grey crowned cranes are among the favourite birds to admire: graceful – and their dramatic feathered crowns gold, not grey.

How to see them: Rescued cranes, formally kept as pets, have been released into Akagera National Park. Umusambi Village, near Kigali, keeps 50 rescued cranes. The project was given a royal seal of approval by a visiting Prince Charles, of the UK, in 2022.


Rwanda is an upmarket safari destination: it has good roads and infrastructure, is known for ecotourism and a government that is exacting – to the point of criticism – on keeping the country in good and clean order. Rwanda is on the pricier side for safari and wildlife watching. This is because the money for permits goes straight back into conservation. Whilst you can see the Big Five in Rwanda, lots of wildlife trips combine Rwanda and neighbouring Tanzania, so that you can see Rwanda’s primates, and Tanzania’s enormous and densely populated savannahs. Expect to pay park entry fees and permit fees – which go directly into conservation and community benefits. Look for operators who employ local people directly – not just in cash but through payroll, and who pay into pensions – a legal requirement that could be circumvented by paying cash only.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ryan M. Bolton] [Intro: Jeremy Stewardson] [What’s so special about Rwanda’s wildlife?: Emmy Shingiro] [Steve Venton quote: LAFREC PROJECT] [Golden monkeys: Charles J. Sharp] [Gorillas: Emmy Shingiro] [Grey crowned cranes: Becky Matsubara]