How Conservation and Community Are Helping to Heal the Land—and People—of Rwanda

Across the East African nation, once-warring neighbors are quietly coming together to restore their natural heritage.
How Conservation and Community Are Helping to Heal the Land—and People—of Rwanda
Alexander Barlow

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We are crouched among the towering hardwoods of Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda's southwest, with orange butterflies fluttering among the plants. On a gentle incline, through a gap in the vegetation, my tracking group watches a baby chimp twirling from a low-hanging branch while her mother lies supine beneath her, catching and gently kissing her youngster's feet—a scene of silent tenderness that holds us rapt. It's the payoff after an hour spent scrabbling through the forest slopes, trying to keep up with the apes. As they finally rest after breakfast, our guide recounts the time he witnessed a group of them celebrating the birth of a newborn among the six-foot-high buttress roots of a mahogany tree. “The males stood in a line, and they took turns to hold the baby and kiss it,” he says with a smile.

A woven bowl at Wilderness Bisate lodge, near Volcanoes National Park

Alex Barlow

Children play on Nkombo Island, in Lake Kivu

Alex Barlow

Today, Nyungwe is a conservation success story, but for decades it was plundered with abandon, its forests decimated to extract timber and honey, install gold-mining operations, and clear land for farming. Poachers picked off the last buffalo in 1974. Then came the Tutsi genocide of 1994, when the park buckled further under the strain of refugees seeking food and wood for shelter. But in the last three decades, Rwanda has made an extraordinary turnaround, bringing its communities together to forge a new path through reconciliation. The country now guards and nurtures its natural treasures with the same ardor with which it once depleted them, ensuring that Nyungwe remains Africa's largest protected montane forest. The chimpanzees we're observing today are from one of two habituated groups among the park's 500-strong population.

As a Ross's turaco glides among trees above, its red wings made translucent by the sun's rays, I feel grateful for Rwanda's efforts to protect these wild places. What's happening in Nyungwe is part of a much bigger story: In 2021 the Rwandan government earmarked 37 percent of the country's territory for environmental conservation, expanding the iconic Volcanoes National Park by almost a quarter. Tourism has been crucial to Rwanda's renaissance; over the last decade, a wave of hotel openings has established a circuit across the country's diverse landscapes. In addition to tracking gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, where Wilderness Bisate, Singita Kwitonda, and One&Only Gorilla's Nest stand just beyond the gates, travelers can head east to Wilderness Magashi, in the Big Five reserve Akagera bordering Tanzania, then loop down to One&Only Nyungwe House, on a working tea plantation in the southwest, before sailing to the Italian hotel group Sextantio's rustic huts on Lake Kivu. As of last year, visitors can also tour the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Kinigi, a 12-acre complex dedicated to gorilla conservation and research. It all makes visiting Rwanda a frictionless, spiritually nourishing experience—a remarkable turn of events, decades in the making.

A gorilla from the Hirwa (“lucky one”) family in Volcanoes National Park

Alex Barlow

Guest rooms at Wilderness Bisate lodge, which have bold emerald accents that complement the lush landscape

Alex Barlow

The countryside north of Nyungwe is an undulating landscape that illustrates why Rwanda is called the Land of a Thousand Hills. I have a constant sense of being airborne, almost as if I'm hot-air ballooning over the lush slopes and serrated fronds of banana trees. I stop to buy sugarcane from boys on the roadside, but when I try to fling the fibrous pulp out of the car window afterward, my driver politely tells me not to. Even if it's biodegradable, it's against the law, he says.

Everything is tightly regulated in Rwanda, from refuse management to social organization. I witness this philosophy of governance in action in the form of community gatherings known as umuganda, or “coming together to achieve an outcome”: Neighbors, no matter how fraught their not-so-distant history, are obliged to convene on the last Saturday of every month and clean roads or plow fields together. In this tiny country, compromise is a nonnegotiable virtue. Humans must live with one another and accommodate primates; agriculture must jostle with wilderness for scarce space. Coexistence may not always be easy, but it is now slowly being ingrained in the national character.

“We like to be humble,” a fellow diner told me at a restaurant back in Kigali. “We don't like to boast, or for one person to stand out.” I consider Rwanda the “quiet man of Africa,” so much so that conversations between newly acquainted compatriots above a certain age can be oddly restrained. The usual African icebreakers (“What's your ethnicity?” “What of your parents?”) are sidestepped, personal histories buried beneath pain and conflict-averse silence. At Kigali's Genocide Memorial, I read the names and ages displayed beneath personal photos of the victims in happier times. It brings home the horrors the country has overcome—and leaves me even more awed by what it's managed to accomplish. Many young Rwandans don't want to be defined by the genocide, and those who experienced the horror don't want to revisit it. Instead, they work tirelessly together to reimagine Rwanda's future. Fiery emotions lie dormant, like the volcanoes that dot the country's northwest landscape.

Crispy vegetable tartare with avocado and tahini at One&Only Nyungwe House

Alex Barlow

Fishermen ply Lake Kivu at sunrise

Alex Barlow

I see those volcanoes rising from the horizon on my approach to the six-year-old Wilderness Bisate. The lodge's six villas, shaped like oblong orbs with thatched roofs, are an intriguing blend of sci-fi and rustic; their sinuous balconies flow with nature rather than defy it. I find myself at eye level with a hagenia treetop that attracts yellow-bellied waxbills and Rwenzori double-collared sunbirds. The sight of the latter's electric green-and-red plumage flitting among the branches grips me for several soothing minutes. Looming in the distance are the Bisoke, Karisimbi, and Mikeno volcanoes, a lenticular cloud hovering over Karisimbi's summit like a billowy UFO. Much of the land between Karisimbi and the lodge may be converted to forest one day, as part of Bisate's effort to restore pristine wilderness.

As I set out on a late-afternoon hike with Bisate's agronomist, Jean-Moise Habimana, the valley reverberates with noises of village life lived outdoors: children shouting playfully, cows mooing, ingoma drums pounding in unspecified celebration. Habimana points out chameleons clinging to grasses and a jackal slinking among the bushes. We pass villagers standing waist high in a sea of white pyrethrum flowers, a natural pesticide that Rwandans harvest and sell. Plants like these are not indigenous—they were introduced by Europeans in the 1930s—which is why Bisate is on a mission to return this area to its natural state. I, like all guests, am invited to plant a tree. The lodge has enlisted a team of agronomists, including Habimana, to take inventory of all trees and sow native saplings. So far, Bisate has planted nearly 90,000 indigenous specimens, including redwoods and lobelia, to replace the invasive eucalyptus. The newly reforested acres are already working their magic: Golden monkeys and elephants, among other creatures, are back. Habimana points out a camera trap; fixed to a gate less than a mile from the lodge's villas, its lens has captured serval cats, African buffalo, and bushbuck. Then Habimana whips out his phone to show me amazing footage of a hairy gorilla arm fleetingly entering the frame one night. When reforestation is complete, guests could conceivably glimpse these great apes from their balconies. But for now, at least by day, they stick to the main forest, where bamboo is abundant and humans are not.

Schoolchildren on Nkombo Island

Alex Barlow

A misty sunrise over the tea plantations surrounding One&Only Nyungwe House

Alex Barlow

I go searching for them in Volcanoes National Park the following morning with a group of guests from nearby lodges. We begin by walking through bean and pyrethrum fields, past cute children who holler “Hello!” and a porch where a man sculpts bas-reliefs on a wooden cane. After less than an hour of hacking through thickets of bamboo, we encounter the Hirwa (“lucky one”) gorilla family. Lying in a shaded clearing and chewing bamboo, the animals have the look of mine workers resting after their labors. I wonder what they're thinking about. It certainly isn't us: A female emerges from behind me and brushes past like I'm leaf-patterned wallpaper. Her proximity—a matter of inches—is momentarily terrifying but utterly exhilarating. Later, an adult male sitting 15 feet from me suddenly stands and beats his chest. I instinctively ball up in terror, but nothing happens. Gorillas are given to these sudden displays of dominance, says our guide, Fidele Nsengiyumva, who, well-versed in their emotions, never flinches. “They make 16 different sounds,” he explains, including belches for contentment and whines for distress. Isango, a 300-pound adult male, takes a long pee and then stamps his feet hard, a series of thunderous whumps to the soil. The toddlers, meanwhile, are as unintentionally entertaining as their human counterparts. One holds a twig between his lips like a B-movie gangster, his hands resting on a branch slung over his shoulders.

Attitudes toward these animals have changed since the old days. “Gorillas' hands were considered potent,” performer Leonidas Barora tells me in the Gorilla Guardian cultural village, near Bisate lodge. “In the DRC, they stole the babies for export. You would see women in the markets carrying them on their backs like human babies.” Reformed former poachers like Barora now staff the village, where they showcase elements of Rwandan culture, such as Intore dancers with their recognizable blond, lionesque manes, arms outstretched to imitate the horns of Ankole cows. What might be a passive, touristy spectacle is made entertainingly interactive when I'm invited to dress in fancy royal robes and play bride in a mock wedding, selecting my groom before being wafted around on a royal sedan.

A woman waits at a market near Nkombo Island

Alex Barlow

A sunbird perches on a tree branch, alert

Alex Barlow

The next day, on the road out of Bisate, my driver waves hello to a passerby and tells me he's François Bigirimana, who worked with Dian Fossey, the American primatologist, to conserve the country's gorilla population. I learn more about Fossey's work and legacy when I visit the $15 million Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, built in 2022 by the Boston-based nonprofit MASS Design Group. Set in a garden of 250,000 native plants, the seemingly space-age structure, with its green circular roofs, manages to blend seamlessly into the hills while covered patios create a natural flow between inside and out. The facility houses research and conservation laboratories as well as Fossey memorabilia: I see her desk and chair in her cabin, and study a pearl necklace and plane ticket to Rwanda in a display case filled with personal effects. There are also interactive maps and exhibits—at one station, I test my personality against the gorillas'; at another, I listen to the sounds of their language.

Rwanda's modernization drive has drawn international attention. At Nkombo Island, the Italian organization Sextantio last year unveiled its Capanne (Huts) Project, two traditional suites with thatched roofs and brick walls on the banks of Lake Kivu. I take a boat from the hills of Cyangugu to Nkombo's Sunday market, where live pigs on leads trot among piles of sugarcane and women in dazzling ankara dresses unload bananas from canoes.

House-made tamarillo ice cream at Wilderness Bisate lodge

Alex Barlow

A child rolls a hoop along the road to Wilderness Bisate lodge

Alex Barlow

Foreign forces may play a role in many of Rwanda's recent developments, but in Gishwati-Mukura National Park I witness the work of ordinary Rwandans who are themselves working to restore their natural heritage. Once 250,000 acres, the Gishwati forest had shrunk to just 1,500 by 2001, when Thierry Inzirayineza and two friends staged an intervention, creating the Forest of Hope Association (FHA) to protect what remained. “In the beginning, we sold our cars to raise the money,” Inzirayineza tells me. Government funding followed, and in 2015 Gishwati and its sister park Mukura were granted national-park status. The FHA built a new guesthouse with just two rooms because “we want to keep tourism low-volume,” Inzirayineza explains by a campfire. Visitors have the entire forest to themselves—and this exclusivity is what makes Gishwati special.

At dawn, I watch the mist float above the canopy and move across it like restless gossamer, backlit by a rising peach-glow sun. Witnessing this spectacle from a bench on the lawn outside my room makes me feel as if I'm in my own luxurious private garden. After breakfast, Inzirayineza and I roam among Jurassic-size ferns and sinfonia hardwoods, spotting forest frogs on the ground and rainbow-colored regal sunbirds overhead, before cooling off beneath a waterfall that spills into a river swarming with butterflies. The chimp population, which has more than doubled to 35, eludes me today, but an intimate encounter with golden monkeys more than makes up for it. They survey us from above, inching along with us through the canopy.

A couple of hours later, we emerge from the forest and stroll back to the guesthouse, passing through bare emerald hills dotted with the occasional makeshift cow-herder hut. Though these pastures, with their picket fences and imported Friesian cows, have an appeal to them, their baldness offers a sobering clarity about what's been lost. But this is a country on a mission to manage its destiny. Having once stared into the abyss, Rwanda is now looking upward and onward. I think about the photographs on the wall in the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, of the many faces of the fallen, and I recognize that those who buried them actually, unwittingly, sowed seeds. With every newborn gorilla and hardwood sapling, Rwanda demonstrates humanity's capacity for renewal.

One&Only Nyungwe House’s cozy lounge

Alex Barlow

A fisherman on Lake Kivu, as seen from Sextantio Rwanda, The Capanne (Huts) Project

Alex Barlow

Where to go

Unveiled in 2022 near Volcanoes National Park, Kinigi's new The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund makes the serious work of conservation accessible to visitors through interactive displays, Dian Fossey memorabilia, and a café and terrace with views of the surrounding volcanoes. On the outskirts of Nyungwe National Park, One&Only Nyungwe House is pitched among tea plantations that stretch toward the forest, with treetop-skimming rooms and suites, bespoke treatments at the spa, and traditional Rwandan dishes like isombe and agatogo on the menu. At Gorilla's Nest, near Volcanoes National Park, freestanding wood lodges look out onto soaring eucalyptus groves and manicured gardens.

American husband-and-wife owners Alissa and Josh Ruxin have expanded Heaven, the first entirely eco-friendly, solar-powered boutique hotel in Kigali, to open The Retreat. Travelers stopping in the capital can check in to one of eight secluded Italian-designed villas, with private plunge pools cocooned within whitewashed walls, on a hill overlooking the city. Six cliffside villas at Wilderness Bisate offer unobstructed views of the volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park and the surrounding countryside. A commitment to environmental conservation is woven into every aspect of the experience, from the reforestation program to the lush vegetable garden supplying the restaurant kitchen. For those killing time between checkout and night flights, the new Wilderness Bisate Kwanda offers day rooms with showers, meals, and more impressive views.

On a hilltop rising from Nkombo Island in unspoiled Lake Kivu, Sextantio is pioneering low-impact tourism with two traditional huts. Guests can live the rustic life (albeit with Wi-Fi and other modern amenities), eating Lake Kivu isambaza fish around an evening campfire after watching fishermen haul in their catch at sunrise. NGO-run guesthouse Forest of Hope Guest House and Camp Site, Gishwati offers humble stays in a majestic setting, with all proceeds going toward conserving the forest. Two en suite bedrooms and a self-catering campsite look out on the hills and forest beyond. There's access to trails for tracking chimpanzees and golden and L'Hoest's monkeys. In the evening, Bisate-trained chefs serve high-quality dishes by a campfire.

This article appeared in the November 2023 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.