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Rwanda -- Geography

Area 10,169 square miles (26,338 square kilometers).

Location Rwanda is located in east-central Africa, between latitudes 10 and 30 South, and longitudes 290 and 310 East; it is bordered on the north by Uganda, on the east by Tanzania, on the south by Burundi, and on the west by Zaire. Rwanda is a landlocked country, bordered by Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and Zaire to the west. The national boundaries have remained essentially unchanged since they were drawn by the European colonial powers in 1910. The northern boundary with Uganda extends due east for 105 miles from a tripoint where the country touches the Congo (Kinshasa); this point is located on Sabino Peak in the Virunga Mountains. From the Congo (Kinshasa) to the eastern Tanzania tripoint at the juncture of the Kakitumba and Kagera Rivers, the boundary is clearly marked either by streams or by pillars. In the east, the border separating Rwanda and Tanzania originally divided two internal administrative regions in German East Africa. This borderline was retained through the periods of Belgium's League of Nations Mandate and the United Nations Trusteeships for Ruanda-Urundi; it became a national boundary when Ruanda-Urundi and Tanganyika gained independence between 1961 and 1962 as Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The boundary extends from northeastern Rwanda southward through the swamps and lakes of the Kagera River Valley. This 135-mile boundary was partly established in 1920, when the former German East Africa was divided into separate mandates. Much of the land straddled by the border is sparsely populated land covered by swamp; for this reason, no important roads cross the boundary in this area.

A de facto boundary existed between Rwanda and Burundi during the period of German control up to World War I. When Rwanda and Burundi became independent states in 1962, they accepted the border as it was defined in the European statutes. Much of this 180-mile boundary follows rivers; these include (from east to west) the Kagera, Alkanyaru, and Luhwa rivers. In the eastern area, the border traverses the Rugwero and Cyohoha lakes. The southern boundary also traverses many swamps. In other regions, especially to the west, Rwanda's borders cross sharply eroded ridges and valleys. The west-central section crosses the Nile-Congo Divide at an elevation of 8,700 feet. The present boundary with the Congo was also defined by the 1910 European agreements. It has remained essentially unchanged and it now divides the modern nations of Congo (Kinshasa), Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Physical Description Rwanda's land is typically hilly, though there are also swamps and extensive mountainous areas. The country can be divided into six topographical regions. From west to east, these are the narrow Great Rift Valley, which slopes sharply to Lake Kivu; the volcanic Virunga Mountains, whose highest peak, the snowcapped Mount Karisimbi (14,870 feet), towers over the high northwestern lava plains; the steep north-south rise of the Zaire-Nile Divide, whose width averages 40 (25 miles) kilometers; the ridge of the Zaire-Nile Divide, with an average elevation of 2,750 (9,000 feet) meters; the central plateaus east of the mountains, which are covered by rolling hills; and the savannas and swamps of the eastern and southeastern border areas, which cover one-tenth of the nation's land area and include the vast Kagera National Park. Most of Rwanda is at least 900 meters (3,000 feet) above sea level; the central plains have an average elevation of 1,932 meters (4,400 feet). Southeastern Rwanda has a desert-like terrain.

Climate Rwanda's high altitude, averaging 5,600 feet in the central plateau uplands, accounts for its pleasant tropical highland climate. Daily temperatures typically range as much as 25 C. The sun shines nearly all year round, and, whatever the season, the mean daily temperature is close to 24 C (76F). Most of the country has minimum night temperatures of around 10C (50F) and maximum daytime temperatures of around 34C (94F). There are two wet seasons and two dry seasons. The October-November wet season is known as "the short rains." The main rainy season, lasting from mid-March to the end of May, sees beautiful clear skies alternate with heavy rainstorms. During the dry seasons, which last from December to mid-March and from June to the end of August, frequent light cloud cover yields a pleasant, never stifling, temperature. Kigali, the capital and largest city, is located on Rwanda's central plateau; its average temperature is 190C (660F) with 40 inches of rainfall annually.

Soils Rwanda's soils contain many of the metal compounds found in laterite soils, but are generally lighter, more fertile, more workable, and less troublesome to farmers than true laterite soils. In some areas, especially in the northwest, soils are of volcanic origin and are quite fertile. About 30% of Rwanda's land is suitable for farming, and another 30% for grazing. Most of the farming and grazing areas were developed when the forests covering the area were felled by Hutu farmers during the last 500 years. Except where the land is seriously eroded or leached by heavy farming, the soils have good humus content and fertility; they compare favorably with soils found in many African regions. Intensive food crop production, often on steep slopes, has led to serious soil erosion. Pastureland has been overgrazed in many areas. Population pressure on the richer lands is sufficiently intense that soil damage, which is due to leaching, erosion, and intensive farming without adequate fertilizing, is an increasingly serious problem.

Lakes Rwanda has 28 lakes of significant size. Six among the largest are entirely within the national territory: Ruhondo, Muhazi, Mugasera, Ihema, Rwanye and Burera. Three others, Rugwero, Cyohoha and Kivu, are shared with neighboring countries. The largest and most spectacular is Lake Kivu, so large as to seem almost like a sea to the landlocked inhabitants. On the border with Zaire, it lies in western Rwanda at the foot of the Virunga Volcanoes, which have been known since the time of the ancient Greeks as the `Mountains of the Moon.' Lake Kivu drains into Lake Tanganyika by the swiftly descending Ruzizi River. The central uplands are drained by the Nyabarongo River and its main tributaries, the Lukarara, Mwogo, Biruruma, Mukungwa, Base, Nyabugogo, and Akanyaru rivers. Rwanda's eastern border is formed by the Akagera River on its way to Lake Victoria.

Forests Most of Rwanda's surviving forests, which now cover only 3% of the nation's land, are either atop the Congo-Nile Ridge, on the volcanic mountains of the northwest, or on Wahu Island in Lake Kivu. Natural tree cover once included a wide variety of temperate and tropical zone trees, shrubs, and bushes, both evergreen and deciduous. Vestiges of the ancient forests remain in other areas, and there are scattered savanna woodlands in the eastern provinces. Forests at high altitudes, which are now protected by law, tend to be located in inaccessible areas where exploitation would be difficult.

Wildlife Many animal species are native to Rwanda. These include lions, elephants, buffaloes, zebras, gorillas, hippopotami, warthogs, rhinoceroses, and many varieties of gazelle, snakes, and fish.

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