The Congo-Nile Divide is the area where the sources of the Congo and Nile Rivers both are found within the Nyungwe and Kibira National Parks in Rwanda and Burundi. Streams and rivers flowing west end up in the Congo river while those flowing east end up in the Nile. While this landscape, as defined in the Albertine Rift Strategic Framework Plan, includes some very small forest reserves (Gishwati, Mukura, Bururi, Vyanda, Rumonge) in reality the most important sites are the Nyungwe National park in Rwanda and the Kibira National Park in Burundi. These two parks are contiguous at the international border between the two countries. As a result 100% of the natural habitat in this landscape is protected as national park or reserve and because of the high human population densities around these protected areas. With the intensive agriculture found here there is little likelihood of expanding the natural habitat in the landscape. Species of conservation concern in the landscape include chimpanzee, mountain monkey, owl-faced monkey, unusual aggregations of Angolan colobus which form groups numbering more than 400 individuals, Rwenzori tauraco, Red-collared Mountain Babbler, Kivu ground thrush, and several endemic plants that have only been found in this landscape.
The total number of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant species recorded from this landscape to date number 1,924, of which 213 species are endemic to the Albertine Rift and 43 species are threatened (CR, EN, VU) under the IUCN Redlist (2010).
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The very high human population densities around the protected areas in this landscape create huge pressures on the landscape. Many of the people live on less than one hectare of land and have 6-8 people per household to feed. Meat is very scarce in people’s diets and consequently there is a strong incentive to look for bushmeat in the forest. As a result many of the large terrestrial mammals have been reduced to very low numbers and buffalo and elephants have been extirpated completely. However, much of the biodiversity that is important for conservation in this region is still present because hunting of other species for bushmeat is rare in these countries. Access by people to the forest for other forest resources is also high and fires used to obtain honey from natural bee hives often leads to large forest fires. Over 12% of the Nyungwe Forest has burnt in the recent past through bush fires, partly because of a drier climate, possibly a result of climate change, coupled with loss of forest cover in Rwanda outside the park. Demand for land for agriculture is also high in both countries and there is a need to find ways people living near these forests can benefit from them in other ways.
WCS has been active in Nyungwe since the mid 1980s with an initial survey of the forest and then the establishment of the Projet Conservation de la Foret de Nyungwe (PCFN) which established a conservation program and research station in the forest. PCFN continued its operations despite the genocide in Rwanda, when all other projects pulled out of the forest, and as a result we were well placed to help create the Nyungwe National Park from the forest reserve in the early 2000s. Following the genocide WCS led a biodiversity survey throughout the forest and a socioeconomic survey of people living in all the parishes bordering the forest (with IGCP and CARE) to help identify key areas for conservation as well as key needs that should be addressed with the local communities. Since these surveys WCS has been involved in supporting the direct management of the forest by supporting RDB, rehabilitating tourism infrastructure in Nyungwe, building a community conservation program which aims to improve the livelihoods of the local people through bee keeping, community tourism projects, access to buffer zones around the park and environmental education programs, and developing fire management plan and working with RDB to control fire in the forest.
WCS also brought together RDB and INECN, the protected area authorities in Rwanda and Burundi, to develop an MOU for transboundary collaboration and to also develop a ten year strategic plan for the conservation of this landscape. Regular transboundary meetings take place to resolve conflicts over illegal activities taking place at the border as well as to help share capacity and experiences between the two countries.
Research continues in the forest with a focus on monitoring some key species, testing methods of improving the regeneration of the forest, evaluating the impact of Sericostachys scandens, a naturally occurring vine that smothers regeneration in the forest and which flowers every 7-8 years and then dies back, as well as undertaking biodiversity surveys of mammals, birds, plants and reptiles and amphibians. We have established long-term monitoring sites for amphibians, large mammals, birds as well as plant phenology within the forest to assess changes resulting from climate change. We have also helped RDB develop monitoring plans for all of its three parks in Rwanda and established MIST in all the parks.
In Kibira National Park we have been helping INECN rehabilitate its infrastructure following the civil war in Burundi. We also undertook a survey of the Park to assess the impact of the war on the forest. This showed that chimpanzees had fared ok throughout the war and still numbered about 400 individuals, about the same as had been estimated in the late 1980s. Together with the Nyungwe Park chimpanzees number about 750-800 individuals, and this is one species that requires transboundary management to maintain a viable population.