A Decade of Successes (and Personal Milestones) in Akagera National Park, Rwanda

Article from the series: Attractions of Rwanda, western Uganda and eastern DR Congo

Named for the Akagera river which winds from south to north — in and out of Rwanda and Tanzania along the eastern border of the park — Akagera National Park lies in the warmer, drier, lower-lying east of Rwanda. Although it hosts the Big Five again, its real advantage is in the spectacular scenery and incredible diversity.

It ranges from the high rolling grassland hills of Mutumba, the park’s highest point with views of the volcanoes on the Congolese border, to the thick, lush forests of tall palms and fruiting fig trees on the edges of the park’s many lakes. Akagera’s rich diversity supports a wide variety of wildlife and birdlife. It probably boasts one of the highest bird species counts for an area of its size, at over 480 different species recorded in just over 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles).

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I used to work in this world of wonders as a tourism and marketing manager. Late last year, after spending nearly 11 years calling Akagera home, our family moved across the country — about as far as you can move from one place to another while still remaining within the borders of Rwanda — to Nyungwe National Park. Only 150km/93mi apart as the crow flies, it feels much further travelling along the winding, hilly roads this land is known for and it certainly looks like it could be another country.

While our new base continues to throw up surprises and delights, like a beautiful great lakes bush viper on our doorstep yesterday, Akagera will always be difficult to top. Right now I am missing the warm, dry-season breezes and the epic orange-sky sunsets that the dust in the atmosphere creates at this time of year, and soon the much-anticipated first rains of the season. I may be biased, but Akagera is one very special place.

First a little bit about myself and us, however. I was born on the continent of Africa, in Malawi, another little landlocked country with many similarities to Rwanda. Despite the best efforts of my parents to emigrate and build a new life in Australia, and later in the UK, it is probably not surprising that I should end up back in Africa. For anyone who has visited the continent will know that you can never really leave it.

15 years after departing Malawi as a child, I went back to visit and then spent the next five years travelling back and forth, holidaying and stints of voluntary work in Malawi and Zambia. In 2008 I returned to Malawi and was based in Majete Wildlife Reserve, managed by conservation organisation African Parks. In 2010 my partner and I moved to Rwanda where African Parks had signed an agreement with the government to manage Akagera National Park.

Fast forward to 2020 and African Parks signed another agreement to manage a second park in Rwanda, Nyungwe. My husband is now involved in both parks, as regional operations manager, while I took the change as opportunity to have a break, homeschooling our two boys (10 and 8) and running around after our (almost) 2-year old daughter.

I spent over 10 years in Akagera, the longest I have lived consecutively anywhere in my life. I got married there, raised three children there and was privileged to witness, and be involved in, some incredible changes.

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One of Akagera’s great appeals is its conservation story. The park was established as a protected area in 1934 and has a long and fascinating history, but I am only touching on the last decade and my own experiences in the park. Since 2010 the management of Akagera has been under a public private partnership between the Rwanda Development Board and African Parks.

In the years prior to 2010 Akagera was a struggling park; the territory had been drastically reduced in size to accommodate returnees and their cattle who had, for a lack of alternative options, settled in the park after the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Poaching was rife, some species had been wiped out completely, community relations were fraught with disputes over boundaries, access to resources and human-wildlife conflict cases. The park was a burden to maintain; a financial drain and a huge management challenge.

Through the partnership with African Parks over the last decade major investment and conservation developments have been made. African Parks takes on the direct responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas across Africa, in partnership with governments and communities. The organisation’s business approach to conservation focuses on ensuring that parks are ecologically, socially and financially sustainable in the long-term.

Securing Akagera and reducing illegal activities was a priority from the beginning, which has now seen poaching drop to an all-time low and wildlife populations rebound. In the first few years statistics for all illegal activities were increasing, not because of a rise in the problem but because effective anti-poaching practices were yielding positive results.

In 2013, 2,000 wire snares were removed from the park — that’s 2,000 potential dead animals saved, and this was not long after the first aerial census estimated just 6,000 total animals in the park. Expanding, equipping and training a law enforcement team, a rapid response helicopter, a canine unit of tracking dogs and a dedicated 24-hour operations room with live monitoring of wildlife and assets have all contributed to securing the park.

Rhinos and lions were re-introduced after being extirpated from Akagera 10 and 20 years ago respectively. The return of these two iconic species were milestones for the park, highlighting the results of years of conservation efforts in order to ensure their safety and long-term survival. In total nine lions were brought to the park which have now grown to a population of around 40 individuals. They have been closely monitored and researched, including prey preferences and pride dynamics, and have shown natural and expected movements and habits.

Akagera rhino population is derived from two sources; a wild population of East African black rhinoceros residing in South Africa, and a small number of captive-bred zoo rhinos which were ‘brought back’ from European zoos. Akagera’s improved security enabled a new range-state for this highly endangered sub-species — there are only around 900 East African black rhinos left in the wild, fewer than the world’s mountain gorilla population — and the park now potentially holds the most genetically diverse group.

It is essential that communities are engaged in and able to derive benefits from the effective management of the park, although this is often a difficult metric to accurately measure. Employment is one of the most significant benefits with the park now employing over 270 staff, the vast majority of whom are locally recruited.

Community outreach programmes include internships, tree planting in schools and environmental education programmes seeing over 2,000 children, teachers and local leaders visiting the park annually, pre- and post-visit programmes include teacher training, assessments of students learning and wildlife clubs.

Income generating initiatives have included fish-farming, agriculture and improved farming practices, apiculture, a community freelance guides programme and developing local crafts. The park also contributes an additional 10% of tourism revenue to the national Revenue Sharing Scheme which goes towards funding projects such as the construction of school blocks and other shared community amenities. A further 5% is contributed to the Special Guarantee Fund for compensation in human-wildlife conflict cases.

As a result of the positive developments in the park, Akagera has seen a tourism boost over the last decade. 15,000 visitors in 2010 increased to nearly 50,000 in 2019 which saw the park very near to becoming self-financing before Covid-19 hit. Hospitality and guides training, improved roads and facilities including a café, shop and upgraded tourism infrastructure and assets have all improved service delivery.

Ruzizi Tented Lodge and Karenge Bush Camp, park-owned and operated properties, were opened to accommodate increasing visitors and contribute 100% of their profits to the management of the park. The Akagera Game Lodge, built in the 1970s, was recently renovated and relaunched under the Mantis brand and well-known safari lodge operators, Wilderness Safaris, opened the first five-star tented lodge concession in Akagera in 2019.

The average tourist doesn’t see the depth or scale of the operation to finance and manage the rehabilitation and maintenance of a park like Akagera. The park offers some insight into this through a behind-the-scenes tour which I would highly recommend. It provides visitors with context on the park and is a real eye-opener for most safari-goers, changing the way they view the park and understanding their own contribution.

I am yet to return to Akagera since leaving last year. From several recent shoebill sightings to new tourism infrastructure developments, the park continues to go from strength to strength under an incredibly dedicated and passionate team. I look forward to returning soon, maybe to capture that first-rain magic — as a tourist this time!

photo by Marcus Westberg

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