Stuart Forster reports from Akagera National Park, Rwanda’s largest game reserve. The national park is in the country’s north-east
Rwanda’s largest national park, Akagera, has been transformed in recent years. Akagera’s undulating landscape covers 1,122 square kilometres (433 square miles) of swamp, uplands and savannah habitat in the north-east of Rwanda.
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A two-and-a-half hour drive from Kigali, this reserve is noted for its broad biodiversity. It’s named after the Akagera river, a Nile tributary snaking along the national park’s eastern border.
From the park’s highest point in the Mutumba Hills, 1,825 metres (5,988 ft) above sea-level, you can see all the way to the volcanoes of the Congo on a clear day. Simply peeking over the border into neighbouring Tanzania is also an option.
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 was appointed as Field Operations Manager. His partner, Sarah Hall, 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. The couple 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 (965 square miles) when it was founded in 1934. 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 several species. The park’s last lion was poisoned in 1994. The big cats were reintroduced in 2015. That follows the precedent of Masai giraffes being successfully introduced to the park in 1986.
The last member of Akagera’s original black rhinoceros population, which numbered more than 50 during the 1970s, was killed in 2007. Following an absence of 10 years, eastern black rhinos were reintroduced to Akagera in 2017.
Redeveloping Akagera’s infrastructure
Significant improvements were needed to prepare the infrastructure of Akagera National Park. Administrative buildings were erected, including a new reception and visitor information centre at the park’s southern gate.
A workforce of 180 locals was employed to undertake tasks, including readying the park’s road system for an influx of visitors.
Ninety people worked to build accommodation and the communal dining area of Ruzizi Tented Camp, overlooking Lake Ihema. The eco-friendly camp opened in 2012 featuring seven tents with en-suite bathroom facilities.
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 Sarah.
Visitor numbers to Akagera increased by 12 per cent in 2012, to 23,048. Almost half of those people were Rwandan nationals. By 2019 the total number of visitors had grown to 49,000, of which nearly half were domestic.
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 Sarah.
Wildlife in Akagera
Akagera’s birdlife is one of its chief attractions. 527 species have been spotted within the par, including the graceful African fish eagle and rare papyrus canary. The park is home to central Africa’s largest protected wetland and remarkable for its dense papyrus growth.
In 2012 boat safaris were introduced on Lake Ihema. The body of water has a sizable population of hippopotamuses and Nile crocodiles.
Tours last approximately an hour and can be booked on arrival in the national park.
A 120-kilometre (75.5-mile) long electric fence was built along Akagera’s western and southern boundaries. The solar-powered fence is patrolled as an anti-poaching and conservation measure.
The fence helps manage conflict between wildlife and humans on the edge of the park. Without it, wild animals could stray from the park to graze on farmland. This puts people in danger. It also puts wildlife at risk if farmers are tempted take action to protect their land, livestock and families.
The fence was a prerequisite for black rhinos and lions to be reintroduced.
It’s possible to view all of Africa’s Big Five game creatures – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinoceroses and Cape buffalo – in Akagera National Park. The mixed habitat is also inhabited by hyenas and sitatunga antelopes.
Map of Akagera
Looking to find Akagera? The Google map below shows the location of the national park:
Getting to Rwanda
Stuart flew to Rwanda with Qatar Airways. Qatar’s flights from London Heathrow to Kigali International Airport Airport are via the airline’s Doha hub.
Accommodation near Akagera National Park
Search for hotel rooms and other accommodation near Akagera National Park on Booking.com (£):
Books about Rwanda
Thinking about travelling to Rwanda? You may find the following books about the country worth reading:
The Bradt Guide to Rwanda with Eastern Congo (£):
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. You can find other posts about Rwanda here on Go Eat Do, including this overview of what to expect of gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. His work has been published by National Geographic Traveller, Rough Guides and The Telegraph. He is available for commissions. Stuart was named Travel Writer of the Decade at the 2020 Netherlands Press Awards.
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Photography illustrating this post is by Why Eye Photography.
A version of this post was originally published on Go Eat Do on 18 April 2013.