Stuart Forster reports from Akagera National Park, Rwanda’s largest game reserve.
Change is underway in Akagera National Park, the largest of Rwanda’s national parks, whose undulating landscape covers 1122 square kilometres of swamp, mountain and savannah habitat in the north-east of Rwanda.
A two-and-a-half hour drive from Kigali, this reserve is noted for its broad biodiversity and named after the Akagera river, the Nile tributary which snakes along the national park’s eastern border. From the park’s highest point, 1825m above sea level, in the Mutumba Hills, you can see all the way to the volcanoes of the Congo on a clear day or simply peek over the border into neighbouring Tanzania.
Changes in Akagera National Park
In April 2010 the Akagera Management Company, a joint venture between African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board, took control as part of a long-term, sustainable vision to rehabilitate the park. Jes Gruner, 33, was appointed as Field Operations Manager while his partner, Sarah Hall, 29, became the Marketing and Tourism Development Manager. Together they oversee the development and day-to-day running of the national park.
The preceding era had proven turbulent and Gruner took over facing a major challenge. During the mid 1990s, in wake of Rwanda’s civil war, people settled much of Akagera’s fertile savannah, converting it to farmland. The national park extended beyond 2,500 square kilometres when it was founded in 1934, but in 1997 the boundaries were re-assessed and its area reduced by more than half. Poaching had become a major threat to the well-being of a number of species and, unfortunately, the last member of Akagera’s black rhino population, which numbered more than 50 during the 1970s, was killed six years ago.
Infrastructural changes in Akagera
Significant improvements were needed to prepare the park’s infrastructure and road system for an influx of visitors. Over the past three years, Gruner has employed a workforce of 180 locals. Last year another 90 people worked to build the accommodation and dining area of Ruzizi Tented Camp, overlooking Lake Ihema; its seven tents with en-suite facilities opened in September. Administrative buildings have already been erected and a new reception and visitor information centre is nearing completion at the park’s southern gate.
Involving the local population is essential for the park’s long term welfare. “They have been involved in helping to repair the dirt road to the park on Umuganda (a form of community service which involves everyone in Rwanda) days and get involved through the community conservation team, who hold conservation education sessions with school children and discuss issues about the park with village leaders…There have been cases where the community have come forward and reported incidents of poaching. It is heart-warming to know that they want to help and understand the importance of helping to protect their park,” says Hall.
Visitor numbers to Akagera increased by 12 per cent in 2012, to 23,048. Almost half of those people were Rwandan nationals. Five per cent of the total revenue generated by tourism is set aside to fund projects for improving community infrastructure and small enterprises. “It is important the local community can see tangible benefits from the park in order to gain their support for the conservation activities within,” explains Hall.
Akagera’s birdlife and wildlife
Akagera’s birdlife is one of its chief attractions. Remarkably, 527 species, including the graceful African fish eagle and rare papyrus canary, have been spotted within the park, which is home to central Africa’s largest protected wetland and remarkable for its dense papyrus growth. Boat safaris were introduced last year on Lake Ihema, which has a sizable population of hippopotamuses and Nile crocodiles. The tours last approximately an hour and you can book them upon arrival in the park.
A 120km long electric fence has been built along Akagera’s western and southern boundaries. The solar-powered fence will be patrolled along its entire length on a daily basis.
The fence will help reduce conflict between wildlife and humans on the edge of the park. Without it, wild animals can stray from the park to graze on farmland. This puts people in danger and, at the same time, wildlife is at risk if farmers take action to protect their land and families. Akagera’s lion population, for example, was wiped out by poisoning in the mid 1990s.
Reintroducing lions and rhinos
Akagera needs the fence before black rhinos and lions can be reintroduced, possibly by the end of next year. There is a precedent for this; the Masai giraffe was successfully introduced to the park in 1986.
Three of Africa’s Big Five currently live within the park. Gruner and Hall are looking forward to the day when visitors can view all five in Akagera. In the meantime its savannah, swamp and mountain landscapes provide habitat for wildlife including leopards, hyenas and sitatunga antelopes.
Learn more about the diversity of Akagera National Park via the African Parks website.
To find out more about tourism attractions in Rwanda, see the Visit Rwanda website.
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Stuart flew to Rwanda with Qatar Airways from London Heathrow via their Doha hub.