EAST AFRICAS FORESTS GOING, GOING, GOING AND GONE BY WHEN
The recently published East Africa Report 2012 makes grim reading, when it comes to the forests in the region, as over the past 20 years, between 1990 and 2010 more than 22 million hectares of forests were razed, for logging, through population encroachment and to make way for farming, the latter often shortlived, as the soil quality rapidly exhausts, then forcing yet more clearing of forest to squeeze out another 2 or 3 harvests before the deadly cycle continues.
While between 1990 and 2000, according to the report, a forest shrinkage from 107 million hectares to 98 million hectares was recorded, a loss of 9 percent, the following decade between 2000 and 2010 saw this trend accelerate significantly to 13 percent, leading to a further reduction of forests to now only 85 million hectares.
The biggest culprit in this report appears to be Tanzania, where the shrinkage was way beyond average recorded in the East African region, with a 67 percent reduction compared to Kenyas 33 percent while significantly Rwanda has actually added forest cover during the period, accelerating in fact in recent years as part of a determined policy implementation to restore amongst others Gishwati forest to its former size and link it back to the Nyungwe Forest National Park.
While Tanzania retains the largest percentage inspite of the major losses in recent years, with 45 million hectares of forest, it is ominous that upon a presidential directive the application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Eastern Arc Mountains was withdrawn, paving the way for extensive logging and mineral extraction without having to answer UNESCO. This move was ostensibly aimed to prevent finding local activities in the spotlight of the international media, as is presently the case over the hugely controversial plans to build a highway across the Serengeti most recently local politicians demanded that the highway be paved even inside the park belying earlier assurances given even by President Kikwete himself or the planned Uranium mining inside the Selous Game Reserve. Both locations are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, bringing the Tanzanian government and UNESCO officials to loggerheads.
In Uganda, plans by President Museveni have never been shelved to carve out nearly 8.000 hectares of prime rainforest from Mabira to give to a sugar baron for cane farming, inspite of the availability of land or the option to use more outgrowers, something the company has refused as they would have to pay instead of getting it for free. It is worth pointing out that the performance ratio of this sugar company in Lugazi is the worst in comparison with all other major sugar companies, and that the same government has withdrawn from its erstwhile shareholding due to the persistent losses the company has made in recent years.
Also in Uganda is a section of the Murchisons Falls forest above the Nile falls under threat, where again President Museveni seems to think that cutting prime forest to create a golf course is a splendid idea, when a few miles outside the park an almost idle golf course at Pakwach could be upgraded to achieve the same purpose, except in the process leaving the park forest alone. Mindboggling!
And in Kenya is the saga of the Mau Forest ongoing, as is the Karura Forest in Nairobi under renewed threat, made famous for the civil disobedience campaign by the late Prof. Wangari Mathai, who later became Kenyas first ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The assault on East Africas environment are many, like the Corridor of Destruction in Tanzania, the constant politically motivated encroachment of Mt. Elgon National Park or the forests in Kibale District, where political opportunism and anticipated gains in voter favour seem to shove environmental concerns rudely aside.
Yet, the changes to the micro climates across the region have started to have a real impact and the quickening cycles of drought and floods has reaffirmed what ecologists and environmentalists have long been saying, that part of the climate change now visible for all in Eastern Africa is home made. Draining of wetlands on an unprecedented scale in Uganda and elsewhere in the region, again with the exception of Rwanda, and the brutal onslaught by chainsaws against the forests in the region, has made an impact already, and unless reversed by copying Rwandas foresighted policy of re-forestation and better organized land use for agriculture, future generations will have to pay dearly for the sins of the present generation of politicians and beneficiaries of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. One look at the icecaps of Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains is enough to confirm the worst fears, that give another 20 or 30 years, they will be all but gone. Quo Vadis East Africa, where to from here. Watch this space as answers will emerge over time.
Archive for April 22nd, 2012
EAST AFRICAS FORESTS GOING, GOING, GOING AND GONE BY WHEN
NEW RULES FOR TANZANIAN TOUR GUIDES AIMED TO IMPROVE QUALITY
Under a recently launched new set of regulation will it become mandatory for tour guides in Tanzania to register and get licensed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. The measure is expected to come into effect in the next financial year, to allow for time to work out the logistics and modalities for the measure, which according to an Arusha based source is to improve the quality of our guides and make them more professional.
The Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism met members of the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators in Arusha last week during a meeting to discuss a range of issues concerning the private sector and explained to them the rationale behind this latest regulatory measure.
Requirements presently include having a certificate from a recognized training institution in tour guiding, experience as a guide, training in first aid and a valid driving permit. A regular source from Arusha added his opinion to the new measures by saying: We should not just look at these minimal requirements if we really want to improve the quality of our guides. Those guides should form their own professional body to assess and grade members, setting exam standards for attaining certain levels of competence like knowledge of flora and fauna, ability to identify birds, history, culture, geography and then grant them categories along those lines. The better qualified one is, the more money they can make with their fees. There should be an entrance level for guides, like starters, and I am not talking of what paper they carry from an institution or school but how they perform in the field. It has to be a panel of their peers to judge competence. Then one can attain higher levels after that, or if found worthy and able and skilled they can go straight to higher levels once they have passed exams.
I know in Kenya they have a professional safari guide association and they give their members the chance to sit for regular exams and then get bronze, silver and gold status. That determines the level of their fees, the best get paid a lot more of course. We need to look at that, or how for instance guides are graded in South Africa, where they have a similar system. The guide association administers exams, assesses knowledge and presentation and then gives them their rating and grading. So finally we have made a good start but it will take a lot more to achieve the objective to make Tanzanian guides reach the top of their profession and give the quality services tourists expect. Right now, you can find certain safari tours where the tourists know more about birds than their driver guide does or even their bird guide does. So if we improve that part, our tourists will know that Tanzania was worth visiting not only for the parks and all but for the experience and competence of all the staff they were in contact with during a visit.
Others in periodic contact with this correspondent also commented, saying that the new regulations will help to create specialized guides for birding, culture, history and other fields while the regular safari drivers, who often act as guides too at the same time, can acquire more knowledge and skills when undergoing training courses. One source in particular appealed to employers, i.e. the owners of safari companies, to come on board and give their staff the chance to train during the off peak season as it would benefit the customer satisfaction and bring more repeat business to the country.
No comments, in view of this being a weekend, could be obtained from the EAC head quarters in Arusha if there are any plans in the making to have a region wide accreditation and quality standard for guides, similar to the East African Community wide catalogue of criteria for grading and classification of hotels and hospitality businesses. Watch this space.
NYUNGWE FOREST LODGE THE GATEWAY TO THE ENCHANTED FOREST
When I write about Rwanda, anything to do with Rwanda, my readers often get back to me and say they feel the passion I have for the Land of a Thousand Hills and it is true. Be it the capital Kigali, well lit, clean streets, disciplined traffic and such a shining example of how an African capital city can look like, impressing a visitor from the first moment one drives into the city from the airport, or be it the country side. I visited many parts of the country in past years and have written much about the Parc de Volcanoes, the Akagera National Park, the Congo Nile Trail and the often breathtaking scenery along the shores of Lake Kivu. But one park, one place in particular has captured my imagination like few others, this being the Enchanted Forest, aka Nyungwe National Park and the Nyungwe Forest Lodge, so close to the forest that sitting on the balcony of some of the villas instantly makes one feel like being in the forest itself, not just looking at it. My all too brief visits in the past left the taste for more in me, and later this year, good health and available time permitting, I intend to return to Eastern Africas largest montane forest and hike along some the nearly 50 KM of trails for a few days, exploring the hidden secrets of Nyungwe, see the waterfalls, sit on the banks of little streams lost in contemplation and seek out butterflies, and some of the more than 100 types of orchids, exotic plants and ancient trees, many of which date back hundreds of years. Yes, there is game too, over 70 species including predators like the sly and elusive leopard, the golden cat, serval, genet and civet cats but also colobus, grey-cheeked mangabey, blue as well as red-tailed monkey, mountain monkeys, golden monkeys, owl-faced monkeys, chimpanzees even, important for most visitors but for me almost on the mundane side of things. The forest is home to over 275 species of birds, many of them endemic, but the true attraction for yours truly is the solitude, the magnificent feeling of being surrounded by a flora of days long gone elsewhere, the fresh air and the priceless experience found in few other places in our world of today, except for the distant jungles of Borneo, the Amazon rainforest perhaps, although the common trails there appear rather too crowded already for my taste. The elevation of the forest into a full national park some years ago, spurred by the vision of then ORTPN and its tourism planners, and turned into reality by the Rwanda Development Boards Tourism and Conservation Department, has left Rwanda richer in biodiversity, richer for a crucially important water tower and richer a destination for tourist visitors. More and more tourists are now coming to the country, as a result of more flights by more airlines than ever before and also as a result of some creative and determined marketing abroad by RDB and the private sector. When the time is right, you will read more about Nyungwe Forest, the very one I call the Enchanted Forest as I can close my eyes and hear the rustling of the leaves above me, bushes brush against tree trunks in the coming and ebbing breeze and I imagine myself transported into another world altogether, distant, ancient and full of creatures from tales I read as a child, and even more recently, here thinking of J.R.R. Tolkiens works.
(A view of Nyungwe Forest National Park from near the Nyungwe Forest Lodge)
Besides accommodation as far as Cyangugu some 35 kilometres from the Nyungwe Forest Lodge the Rwanda Development Board has basic accommodation available at their Gisakura park offices, including some self catering campsites inside the forest, at least one of which I intend to use to do a full overnight trip should I be permitted to stay on my own for the night.
But set in the middle of an extensive tea estate is a little jewel, THE place in my own mind to come to after spending time on the trails and then in need of some luxurious relaxing, with the forest close to touching distance from some of the villas balconies and also a base for more walks, guided or alone.
Dubai World, the owners of Nyungwe Forest Lodge, spared no expense to make the lodge not just comfortable but provide the luxuries one comes to expect from a 5 star rated property owned by them, the rating by the way bestowed upon the lodge by RDB in an end 2011 award ceremony when the first ever star rating of hotels and lodges was first publicly revealed in Rwanda.
The main building of the lodge already tells the story, from the moment the car drives on to the porch. Built of stone and timber, it sets the tone for the stay and from the tiled roof emerge the chimneys required by the open fireplaces generously dotted around the public areas. The bags are offloaded unobtrusively and a hostess greets the new arrivals, with fresh chilled juice steaming, freshly brewed hot tea is served on request of course as is coffee and scented towels to wipe off the dust and sweat of the journey. Check in is swift, done in the lounge if preferred, and beyond the lounges and the huge fireplace, where a fire roars at night, and if requested during the day too should it be chilly outside during the rainy season, is a boutique and that all important dining room.
On sunny mornings or afternoons, extending to the outdoors and in the evening of course rather indoors, the menu is offering a choice of starters, main courses and desserts, while breakfast is a combination of a small healthy buffet of fruits and cereals although there are cold cuts and orders are taken for hot dishes by the attentive waiters. A wide selection of home baked breads and pastries, needless to say, is also available.
(Breakfast is served at Nyungwe Forest Lodge)
And lunch, just to mention, can be served al fresco at the pool side for those too lazy, or too caught up in their novels, to dress up and walk up to the restaurant. It is available and there for the asking of guests.
Some of the activities like tracking of chimps require an early start at 4 am, but even then hot drinks and a basic breakfast is available, or in addition a breakfast box can be taken along if ordered the night before.
Food preparation and presentation are now showing the pedigree of the owners and the service, since the early days of opening, has matured and gelled well, even when the lodge is busy and all the 22 villas and 2 suites are occupied. And the chefs are ever ready to prepare a special dish and are of course happy to discuss culinary delights with their guests, to the point of taking them for a quick tour of their kitchen, spotless of course as one would expect in a property of this outstanding quality.
A heated swimming pool right at the edge of the forest is supplemented by a fully equipped gym looking out into the forest of course and a Spa offers body and beauty treatments for those who need a massage after a long days hike in the forest.
Accommodation is available in villas, or two superb suites, and while the bathroom is separate, shutters can be opened right above the bed to permit a view from the large bathtub across the room and through the open curtains, or open terrace doors, on to the forest, giving that very special feeling of being part of the nature outside.
(Embedded into a tea plantation, the villas are set right at the edge of the forest)
While some guests might find a state of the art flat screen TV with satellite programmes essential, I make it a habit on my travels not to switch them on at all, relying on my Twitter feed for breaking news and then of course does
Nyungwe Forest Lodge have wireless internet connections, and reception for cellphones.
The rooms are a mix of both the modern and of African features like art, and again, while I personally would prefer an altogether more rustic look, many, perhaps even most guests will just love what they find.
The beds are ultra comfortable, with soft feather pillows and hard enough mattresses, but most important a warm duvet keeping the cold away during the at times rather coolish nights, considering the elevation of the lodge.
In my opinion, a stay at Nyungwe Forest Lodge is always too short, no matter how long one stays and I would recommend at least three nights, to explore the lodge grounds and tea estate, do some hikes, see the chimps or some of the dozen other primates and not to be forgotten, do the canopy walk high above the treetops from the Uwinka Visitors Centre, from where a phantastic vista opens up across the forest, showing just how extensive it is. I hope I have enchanted you too now and made your mouth water for more of this soul food, for now to read but hopefully one day to see in person as the Land of a Thousand Hills is warmly welcoming visitors from near and far.
For more information on the lodge visit www.nyungweforestlodge.com or else learn more about Rwandas tourism attractions by looking in a www.rwandatourism.com