Birdwatching is a significant and rapidly growing nature-based tourism activity that contributes to sustainable and eco-friendly tourism practices, and Rwanda has a great deal to offer. The country is a birdwatchers’ paradise offering one of the best African Montane Birding experiences. It hosts more than 700 bird species, including 29 Albertine Rift Endemics, in various habitats comprising savannah and montane forest. To capitalise on its full potential to attract the lucrative birdwatching market, efforts are being made to train guides to specialise in birdwatching and establish the concept of birder friendly accommodations in the Destination Kivu Belt and the Volcanoes National Park.
Stevie Isimbi and Janvier Dusingizimana are amongst the 42 guides from the Kivu Belt region and Musanze district who received the opportunity to participate in the Birdwatching training and be recognised as specialised certified birdwatching guides. The training was conducted in two parts – the basic training in 2019, complemented by the refresher training in 2020. “In the basic training in 2019, we were introduced to theoretical guiding skills that prepared us to identify birds and their behaviours, habitats and related attractions. In the refresher training in 2020, we had the opportunity to visit Gishwati National Park and Mount Rubavu with experts in this field and specifically focus on the needs of birdwatchers as a tourism market,” explains Janvier. “We dived deeper into birdwatching techniques for identifying and interpreting birds, planning, packaging and executing a professional birdwatching tour for enthusiast bird lovers.”
The training is a concerted effort of the Rwanda Development Board, the Rwanda Chamber of Tourism and the GIZ Promotion of Economy and Employment (Eco-Emploi) project to promote Destination Kivu Belt as a prime destination for birdwatching. The initiative aims at empowering site guides as specialised certified birdwatching guides, promote selected accommodations as Birder Friendly Accommodation (BFA) and create a collaboration between the trained guides and the BFAs. “Holding this certificate in birdwatching is a huge advantage for me because birdwatching isn’t an activity that is commonly known in Rwanda. Also, training opportunities such as this provides an enabling environment for new guide niches, an additional source of income through birding tours for existing guides and contributes to the creation of employment opportunities for the local population,” exclaims Janvier.
Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the Rwandan tourism and hospitality sector. Despite not being able to take tourists on birdwatching tours, both Stevie and Janvier are incredibly passionate about birdwatching. During this time, they have grasped opportunities, which, according to them, are stepping stones to bigger things. For instance, Janvier ingeniously used his passion to start the Jill Barham Ross’ Turaco Birding Club for students at the Jill Barham TVET School in Rusizi, where he has been working since November 2020. “The skills, knowledge and self-confidence I acquired from the training is the foundation of my career. It also helped me to encourage the school manager to invest in the school club by purchasing basic equipment, such as field guidebooks and binoculars, and to start a workshop for more practical learning on birdwatching for students.” Stevie excitedly describes how she was approached by a faculty member of the Musanze Secondary School to conduct a birdwatching field trip for students. “I was invited to accompany and guide students to learn more about birdwatching. The school trusted me because of my birdwatching certificate that I received from the training.”
As the tourism and hospitality sector slowly bounces back, both Stevie and Janvier are looking forward to applying their acquired skills. “I did not receive many opportunities to guide tourists because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now that tourism activities are resuming, I look forward to doing so. I am passionate about what I do, and I also look forward to acquiring more skills on tour guiding and birdwatching,” expresses Janvier. Meanwhile, as she continues to work as a guide, Stevie reveals her desire to also study further. “During my high school, I majored in Maths and Physics. Tourism and being a guide are my passion. So, I would like to study tourism, and with the skills I have working as a guide, I am confident I will own my own tour company soon.”