Bird Diversity

There is a war going on in my backyard. Not a silent or subtle war but an all out screeching at each other war: the birds are fighting.  Unlike most backyards in Rwanda, ours does not attract the many beautiful birds that inhabit Rwanda.  Instead, our numerous Avocado trees attract a different kind. There are Black Kites, storks, vultures, black and white crows and some horribly loud bird called an Ibis.  Since the rate at which I presently read books, about one every three or four days, I’ve quickly run out of novels to read in this house and these birds provide a good source of entertainment.  It is for this reason you’ll find that I always sit at the dining room table facing the backyard.




Therefore it was with curiosity that I went to interview the coordinator of the Ornithology program.  Perhaps he could tell me about all the birds I was missing out on.  Claudien has been studying birds since 2004 doing research on the Grauer’s Swamp Warbler with the help of Katie Fawcett who is the director of the Karisoke Research Center.  Now he trains field staff for Rwandan tourism and research on their ecology and how to identify birds.  In addition to training guides, Claudien assists undergraduate students on their research.



While the program is only a fledgling, the Karisoke Research Center is now recognized as one among many birding organizations in Rwanda.  Claudien has also established a relationship with Sutton Avian Research Center and hopes to establish many more relationships with other birding organisations.  In the future, the Bird Diversity Program will conduct research on threatened and endemics to the Albertine Rift area and continue research on the Grauer’s Swamp Warbler.



Ignorance, according to Claudien, is one of the biggest hurtles for bird conservation: “The people in the local area still have very little knowledge about the importance of birds.”  It is for this reason that the program is dedicated to educating the population.  For the second year, Claudien has organized the World Migratory Bird Day. In the past, he has also organized day to celebrate the World Bird Festival by going to a primary school and giving presentations.  In addition to lack of knowledge about the importance of bird diversity, cattle grazing and grass cutting greatly reduce the habitat for most birds.



While the future of Bird Conservation is hopeful since birding is a popular attraction for tourists, the program still has a long way to go.  Claudien hopes to continue his studies and gain more training in birding techniques.   Hopefully with the collaboration with other organisations, he will be able to evolve his program.



Since Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, it has had no shortage of female researchers.  In fact, both the previous director of Karisoke Liz Williamson and the present one Katie Fawcett are women. However, it is not common to find a Rwandan woman researcher.  While the Rwandan government is amazingly gender neutral, it is a fairly recent development.  While the Gorilla Research Program’s manager is a woman, the program can only boast one Rwandan female on the team: Theodette Gatesire who is the data entry assistant.  Together we are visiting the famous woman researcher’s grave.


In 2005, Theodette came to Karisoke to study the behaviour of lone silverback gorillas. Studying these gorillas is no easy feat; one must track long distances to follow the gorillas and over steep terrain.  “When I tracked silverbacks, I had to walk a lot and go very fast to keep up with the gorillas.  I have no problems with the forest,” she says.   After finishing her memoirs, she went to work for the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks as a guide.  While she enjoyed showing tourists through the park, she left half a year later to return to Karisoke as the data entry assistant.  When she got pregnant, she thought her career at Karisoke was over and was greatly surprised when she got a call asking if she was strong enough to return to work. “I can try!” was her response.  At first she asked to only work three days a week with a maximum of five to six hours per week.  When she was told she was allowed to bring her baby in to work, she returned to her full schedule with seven hours a day.


The trek up the volcanoes is long and arduous.  Despite having travelled this trail many times before, Theodette and Fidel Uwimana, the field data coordinator, go at a pace that will not completely wear me out.  Fidel knows this site especially well because he worked and lived in one of the cabins here for Dian Fossey herself.  When we come across a skeleton frame of a building, Fidel explains with a smile that this is where he once lived.


On our way back from the park, we discussed the status of women.  “The women in Africa are very strong because it is them who do the work in the field, fetch the water and the hard labour.  They can have a baby on their back, go fetch water and take care of the home,” she says, “You rarely see a man taking care of a baby or cooking.”  Suddenly our driver, Jean-Bosco, pipes in “there are few who help their wives.” He points out that he especially helps out when his wife is sick.  “Most men call in another female relative when their wives are sick,” he says.  Jean-Bosco is from a younger generation; Theodette thinks that with the next generation it will be even more equal.


Now it’s hard to not have preconceptions about a country you hear so much about in the news.  For a country emerging from one of the most devastating events of the 20th century, you’d never expect the degree of normalcy that Rwanda gives off.  Now it’s easy to say such things as a Muzungu; the brevity of my stay just simply does not allow me the ability to delve much deeper than the superficial appearance of things.  Rwanda has progressed leaps and bounds since the 90s. One of the things that I was most surprised to discover when coming to Rwanda is the degree of gender equality.  Now I’m not saying this as if it is good in comparison to other African countries; Rwanda has a requirement that 30% of its government be made up of females and the actual number is above that. This is something not even Canada or the United States has ever achieved.  Because women are now seen as being breadwinners, poor families see a reason in sending a girl to school.  “Before, parents did not want to have girls; they were only good for having kids and cultivating,” says Hakuzimana Marcelline who is the coordinator of the clinic program for Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, “Parents chose between kids to go to school and girls stayed home.”



Marcelline is one of the women who work at the Karisoke Research Center. She has worked as a nurse for 8 years and just started with DFGFI in May of 2008.  She trains other nurses and health animators on sanitation, nutrition and parasites.  Over sixty health animators go into the local population next to the Volcanoes National Park and check their health and talk to them about their living conditions.  Marcelline goes into the population as well and briefs people on toilets, washing hands, proper clothing and taking care of their bodies.




Today we are on the edge of the park in Bisate where we are going to see the water tank that was installed by the water and sanitation program of DFGFI.  The people who live next to the forest are the one with the most contact with gorillas. The need to ensure their health is a priority.  Because of the lack of clean water, parasites are common and it is Marcelline’s job is to make sure that anyone who is found with an infection be treated.



On the park frontier in Bisate, the well-off families have houses made of mud. The red mud that most houses are made from has to be shipped up by truck because the volcanic soil is too porous.  This can be a pricey endeavour so most houses are made of bamboo and covered in banana leaves.  When we arrive at the water tank there is a crowd gathered around the spout.  The dry season is just about to begin and I am aware that this crowd will be double the size once it does.   After walking around a bit, Marcelline pulls me over to show me something.  There has been a mischievous little one who has been defecating around the tank.  She gathers the kids together and gives them a small lecture on why it is so important to go in the latrine. “Parents have to teach their kids to protect themselves against parasites,” says Marcelline.



Marcelline is optimistic that the status of women will get even better with time. “For the moment, women are still low in society. There are not even many women who are nurses but now you see women in all different fields: there are women drivers, managers and politicians.”


Ok, well I was waiting for some clearance on these but I leave Rwanda in a week!  So I’m going to post and then make changes as they are suggested to me.  Enjoy!

I’m back from a whirlwind week in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I’ll tell you all about it soon but I still need to catch you up on the stuff that’s been happening prior to the internet being struck by lightning and exploding incident.  Some exciting stuff, I assure you.

When coming to Rwanda, I had many ideas of what I might encounter; fellow bloggers was not one of them.  Two friends, one who had been living in Rwanda for the past two years and one who is a lifelong Rwandan have recently left for the United States.  Both have blogs.


  Jean Pierre Nshimyimana is the water and sanitation consultant at Karisoke and was the first person I met when I came to Ruhengeri.  Fluent in French, English and Kinyarwandan, he is something of the unofficial translator for us Muzungus and has been my guide around the Bisate Clinic and Water tanks around the Volcanoes National Park.  He has just landed in Boston where he will be studying at MIT.  You can follow along with him as he discovers fire hydrants, sprinkler systems and American cuisine.  The latter is something he is so dreading that he has decided that the only way to survive it is to become vegetarian and avoid any greasy food.



Sean Clauson has been living in Rwanda for the past two years documenting on film his sister’s amazing work on the Bisate and Shingiro clinics.  You can read backwards to realize just how far these little clinics have come since they have been rehabilitated.  He too has just left for the US where he will be editing all 500 hours of his footage and attempt to make them into something coherent.

I have a slight fascination with plants.  Botany had always been a side dream of mine.  Plants don’t judge; they don’t think: they just are. Each one is a fascinating in its own way, perfectly adapted to their environment.  You could spend lifetimes, and people have, studying the billions of different plants that have evolved to be in that place at that time.


That’s why, when I interviewed Aimable Nsanzurwimo who is the coordinator of the Botany Research Program at the Karisoke Research Center, I could hardly contain my glee.  The Albertine Rift has 1,034 plant species, 82 of which are endemic to the Albertine Rift, with more being discovered all the time.  Aimable is basically a kid in a candy store and I envy him.


Aimable Nsanzurwimo has been with the Karisoke Research Center since 2005 but, like most employees here, started as a student studying for his bachelors on bamboo.  Bamboo is very important vegetation to both the monkeys in the park and the gorillas as they provide a good source of food. By looking at species that are associated with bamboo growth, he could determine the positive and negative impact they had on its growth.


Of particular interest to him was whether or not gorillas knew to choose certain plants in order to medicate themselves.  Aimable looked at how the local population used plants for medication and then looked at what plants the gorillas eat.  The two corresponded.  Of the 110 plants used by the people for medicinal purposes, the gorillas shared 35.  This meant that there is a possibility that the gorillas were eating certain plants to help with minor illnesses, such as bowel troubles.


Some of the plants that gorillas eat include the secamone Africana, the gomphocarpus physocatpus, the pentarrhinum inspidum and, of course, bamboo which is shared by both gorillas and Golden Monkeys.



The vast amount of diversity at the park means that Aimable has a large amount of work ahead of him.  He has begun a plant database of all the plants in the park.  He has also reviewed the list of plants that the monkeys and gorillas eat.  Around 80 and 114 plants are eaten by them respectively.  So far, he has identified 162 plant species and discovered new species of moss, orchids and sponges.  Weather in North-Western Rwanda is varying; I was supposed to have missed the rainy season all together but instead the rain continued for another half a month.  In order to measure this change, Aimable has begun recording rainfall per month.



In the future, Aimable wants to continue his research on bamboo and orchids over a long term along with continued updates on the plant catalogue.  He also hopes to have a botanical garden for all the plants in the first two vegetation areas of the volcanoes.  The mere idea of having an area where one can be surrounded by and observe all the different plants of the Volcanoes National Park makes me drool.


However, Aimable’s set-up is still not up to par for the work he is trying to do now.  The sad fact is that he does not have enough resources: he is using newspapers to preserve plants.  Nevertheless, looking back to 2005 and how the Botany Program has so far grown, Aimable is very happy and believes the best is yet to come…


“If there are no plants, there are no gorillas!”

Photos provided by Aimable Nsanzurwimo