From the peerless wildlife experience of tracking mountain gorillas to the recent reintroduction of rhinos to the region, Rwanda has had some real conservation success stories of late and is now a rewarding destination for game viewing. Read on to discover the best wildlife experiences to be had in the 'Land of a Thousand Hills'.
Tick seeing the Big Five off your bucket list
18 rhinos were introduced into Akagera National Park in 2017 and one has since had a calf © Stuart Slabbard, Akagera Management Company
Visit Akagera National Park to observe the coveted Big Five. Buffalo are plentiful and easily seen, elephants are quite common but more difficult to track down, and leopards are present but secretive as ever. For the best part of two decades, lion sightings had been little more than the stuff of rumour, but with the June 2015 reintroduction of seven lions (two males and five females) flown in from reserves in South Africa, Akagera is once again home to the most charismatic member of the quintet. Two more males were brought in in 2017, and signs indicate that they’re all settling in nicely – nearly a dozen cubs have been born here since the reintroductions began. The last black rhino was seen in 2007, but in May 2017 two planeloads of rhinos – 18 in all – arrived in the park and they’ve since had a calf. All in all, it’s been a magnificent few years for Akagera National Park, and all signs point to more exciting times ahead making it a 'must-see' attraction.
Galavant around the Virungas with gorillas
The strikingly varied personalities of each gorilla can quickly become apparent over the course of your visit © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Tracking mountain gorillas in the Virungas is a peerless wildlife experience, and one of Africa’s indisputable travel highlights. It is difficult to describe the simple exhilaration attached to first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla. What is truly fascinating is the extent to which the gorillas try to interact with their visitors, often approaching them, and occasionally touching one of the guides in apparent recognition and greeting as they walk past.
Spot bucket-list birds
The red-throated alethe is undisturbed by humans, allowing for incredible photography opportunities © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Rwanda is a wonderful destination for birdwatchers, with an incredible 700 species recorded in an area smaller than Belgium and half the size of Scotland. You don’t have to be an ardent birdwatcher to appreciate some of Nyungwe’s birds. Most people, for instance, will do a double-take when they first spot a great blue turaco, a chicken-sized bird with garish blue, green and yellow feathers, often seen gliding between the trees along the main road. Other birds impress with their bizarre appearance – the gigantic forest hornbills, for instance, whose wailing vocalisations are almost as comical as their ungainly bills and heavy-winged flight. And, when tracking through the forest undergrowth, watch out for the red-throated alethe, a very localised bird with a distinctive blue-white eyebrow. The alethe habitually follows colobus troops to eat the insects they disturb, and it appears to see humans as merely another large mammal, often perching within a few inches!
Spring into action alongside antelopes
Impala are a type of slim handsome antelope that bear a superficial similarity to gazelles © Sarah Hall, Akagera Management Company
The 11 antelope species in Akagera range from the eland, the world’s largest antelope, through to the diminutive common duiker. The most common, however, is the impala, a slim handsome antelope which bears a superficial similarity to the gazelles, but belongs to a separate family. It is commonly sighted in the woodland around and between the lakes of Akagera. The Defassa waterbuck is a large, shaggy brown antelope with a distinctive white rump. The waterbuck inhabits practically any type of woodland or grassland provided that it is close to water, and it is probably the most common large antelope after impala in the far south of Akagera. Very common in the north of the park and in the Mutumba Hills, the topi or tsessebe is a large, slender dark-brown antelope with striking yellow lower legs. Oddly, the herds of topi in northern Akagera seem to be far larger than those found in the Serengeti ecosystem.
Search for Rwanda’s most intruiging reptile
Rwanda is recorded to be home to at least eight species of chameleon © PhotogrphyNomad, Shutterstock
Common and widespread in Rwanda, but not easily seen unless they are actively searched for, chameleons are arguably the most intriguing of African reptiles. Most of Rwanda's chameleons are forest species associated with Nyungwe National Park. You’re most likely to come across a chameleon by chance when it is crossing a road, in which case it should be easy to take a closer look at it, since most chameleons move painfully slowly and deliberately. Chameleons are also often seen on night game drives, when their ghostly nocturnal colouring shows up clearly under a spotlight – making it pretty clear why these strange creatures are regarded with both fear and awe in many local African cultures. More actively, you could ask your guide if they know where to find a chameleon – a few individuals will be resident in most lodge grounds.
To find out more about Rwanda's unique wildlife, discover our comprehensive travel guide: