Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo
OK, let’s talk about money … Safaris are probably not the cheapest holiday option. As well as your flights, accommodation, food and transport, you might also have game drives, park fees, and additional activities to budget for.
There is also a whole mixed-bag of options when it comes to planning a safari. Whereas private reserves or private lodges operating in and around national parks in Southern Africa tend to offer all-inclusive rates where your game drives are operated by the lodges, Akagera, and parks in Uganda, are largely based on self-driving. You can either employ the services of a tour operator or driver-guide to provide your transport to, and around, the park or have your own private/hired vehicle and drive yourself.
It can be quite complicated to navigate the various rates, which differ from park to park. In Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest National Park, for example, you currently pay per activity you do which may take 1-2 hours for a shorter walk, or up to half a day. Doing an activity is the only way to see and experience the park, a guide is compulsory and included in the fee. In Akagera, a daily (or nightly — more on this below) entry fee gives you the full day to access the park for self-guided game driving and any additional guided activities, such as boat trips or night drives and taking a guide with you in your vehicle, are optional and incur an extra fee.
With more accommodation options becoming available outside Akagera in recent years there is also a distinction between ‘overnight visitors’ — those spending the night inside the park who pay per night (and get the two days either side to explore the park for one payment) and ‘day visitors’ — those who are entering on a daily basis and pay the entry fee daily. Other parks in the Gorilla Highlands region apply the fee per 24 hours.
Commonly, prices also vary depending on residency status; internationals, East African residents and East African nationals pay different rates. And then there are child rates for all categories and sometimes student rates too.
What does it cost to visit Akagera National Park?
At the beginning of 2021 Akagera doubled the entry fee to USD 100 for international tourists for the first day (or night for overnight guests) and the subsequent two days (or nights) remained the same at half the rate, USD 50 each (click to download the official price list). It may have seemed like quite a radical increase at the time, particularly considering the global pandemic and the long road to recovery for the tourism industry.
However, in 2019 Akagera was on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success. Visitor numbers had increased more than three-fold since 2010 with almost 50,000 tourists in 2019 and around 45% of those were in the peak four months of the year. Many of the online reviews or feedback previously received about Akagera mentioned “having the whole park to ourselves” or “not seeing another vehicle” and Akagera was fast losing this appeal. Changing the pricing structure at this time allows park to better manage visitor numbers as tourism recovers. The sliding scale, with the first night commanding a higher rate than the subsequent two nights, ideally encourages fewer people to stay longer and enjoy a ‘slow safari’. After the first three nights any additional nights (for up to a week) entry fees are waived entirely.
Where does the money collected by Akagera NP go?
Unfortunately, many of these ‘wild places’ are less wild than they once were and actually require quite intensive management. And it is an expensive business.
Akagera has over 400 kms (250 miles) of road network, roads are essential for management purposes as well as providing tourists access to the park, and they require constant upkeep with a grader and a dedicated team. Akagera’s 120km solar-powered boundary fence line has a fence maintenance team who, in groups of two, each walk a section of the fence line every day so that every inch is inspected. The fence requires maintenance, equipment replacement, vehicles and security. The teams need housing, rations, uniforms and tools. In addition to the fence and road teams, the operations department includes drivers, mechanics, store keepers, builders and other skilled staff managing repairs and maintenance for buildings, vehicles, boats, tractors, motorbikes and ordering and distribution of spare parts, materials and fuel. The law enforcement department includes field rangers, the canine unit handlers and kennel keepers, two marine teams, rhino trackers, the 24-hour control room staff as well as gate security staff, night watchmen and cooks. They all require training, uniforms, radios … and the list goes on.
Conservation is expensive. A GPS elephant collar with a two-year life-span costs USD 2,500. More cost-effective alternatives are being trialled, using LoRa technology, but they require a backbone of towers for full coverage in the park, equipment and ongoing maintenance. As well as elephants, several lions are collared and rhinos chipped for monitoring and security. All park vehicles and assets are tracked. Most of these things are never even seen by the average tourist but all are essential for the efficient and effective management of a park.
ANIMAL TRACKING IN MORE DETAIL
GPS collars (which are on some elephants and lions in Akagera) also have VHF capability for tracking in the field — this is where rangers take telemetry equipment and search for the VHF signal for each individual collar to try and get a sighting. The GPS component sends a signal to a satellite intermittently, at an interval that the park can determine, usually one or two times a day. In the park’s ops room they can then see the last location of the animal. So this is not in real time, but it can be set to send a signal hourly, or even every minute if you wanted to, but the battery life is reduced by more frequent signals.
The park installed a backbone of towers to implement a LoRaWAN (standing for long range wide area network) system. This is essentially the park’s own private, closed network. Initially it was used to track the parks vehicles, boats, motorbikes etc. Each vehicle has a tracking device which relays signals to the LoRa receivers on the towers as they pass through the park, and the information is relayed to the operations room so they can see, in real time, where all the vehicles are located. Rangers can also wear trackers when in the field, and the same system can be used for a whole range of other monitoring and tracking purposes (potentially tracking tourist vehicles in future, fence monitoring, weather monitoring and also wildlife tracking, among others). The sensors are now small enough to be able to fit into a rhino horn, so some of the park’s rhinos have a GPS/VHF transmitter in one horn and a LoRa transmitter in the other. Its a bit of a trial at the moment, signals can be blocked by hills and battery life is still an issue.
African Parks projects all have a community department and dedicated budget for community engagement. This differs in and around each park but will include income generating activities for alternative livelihoods, investment in essential infrastructure such as schools and health centres, scholarship programmes and internships. In addition to budgeted community activities, 10% of Akagera’s tourism revenue is put aside to contribute to the national revenue sharing scheme (aimed at improving livelihoods in communities around the parks in Rwanda) and a further 5% is given to the special guarantee fund to compensate in cases of human-wildlife conflict.
Protected areas are a choice of land use and need to make a valuable contribution in order to maintain their existence. There are probably very few national parks in Africa that are completely self-financing, Akagera is not yet there but it came close in 2019. In 2010 the park was earning around 10% of its expenditure through tourism revenues and had to be funded by donors for the remaining 90%, in excess of two million dollars. By 2019 the park had increased its tourism revenue 13-fold generating almost 90% of the required funding to operate the park at that time.
Significant conservation initiatives like bringing back East African Black rhino in 2017 increased the parks operating budget by around USD 500,000 a year due to the dedicated rhino monitoring teams, uniforms, housing, rations, training, tracking equipment, veterinary intervention, helicopter monitoring — at around USD 2,000 per hour — and more. Had the rhinos not been reintroduced, the park would have been on track to make a profit much sooner, however, there is always responsibility to conservation first and it is not always necessary to be making a profit in order to make a valuable contribution.
Despite not being financially self-sustainable, a well-functioning park still makes a significant impact. Employment is a huge benefit. Akagera now employs over 270 people. Their spending power in the local community encourages new shops, improved services and infrastructure. Although not generating a profit, Akagera paid over USD 700,000 in taxes in 2019, making a contribution to the economy. In part due to an improved park, the once-bumpy, 30km/18mi dirt road to the park gates is now a tarmac road easing access and creating new opportunities for communities along the way.
A well-functioning park offers improved safety and security for surrounding communities as well as the wildlife within. Lodges outside are beginning to be developed as people see value and are prepared to invest, which further generates employment opportunities and local spending. Even without being self-financing, an effectively managed park encourages an economy that is directly linked to protecting wildlife.
It is important to note that not all parks are managed equally and here is where responsible tourism comes in. Tourists can spend their dollars more wisely by choosing parks that are well managed, accommodations that support local communities, operators and activities which contribute to sustainability and making a difference. But you will need to do your homework here, as it is not always so obvious.
National parks need tourists and the revenues they bring. People need wild places and wildlife too. It is about balancing the needs of both, for the benefit of all.
photos courtesy of Wilderness Safaris