Rwanda’s rejuvenated Akagera National Park represents a budding safari success story.
As the last vestiges of another glorious African day disappear from the horizon, the sky above Karenge Bush Camp transforms into a velvet canopy of stars. Across the border in Tanzania, the lights of scattered villages twinkle in the inky blackness, hinting at the pervasive presence of man. But here in eastern Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, just three hours by road from the capital of Kigali, nature rules supreme.
Somewhere beyond the ring of kerosene lamps that defines the camp boundary, a pack of spotted hyenas whoops, cries and cackles. On the veld below, scattered herds of zebras bark and whinny while fiery-necked nightjars drum out their distinctive “good-lord-deliver-us” calls, backed by an endless nocturnal chorus of cicada beetles and crickets.
The seasonal Karenge Camp first opened in 2015. A naked cluster of tents perched high above the acacia-studded, grassy expanse of the Kilala Plain, it is the ideal base from which to experience the spectacular game that now roams the northern reaches of Akagera National Park.
With a name that means “small footprint” in Kinyarwanda (the official language of Rwanda), Karenge has a negligible environmental impact. Yet despite its rudimentary bush showers, or perhaps because of them, the camp has proven to be a big hit with Akagera’s growing number of visitors. Drawn to the park’s burgeoning wildlife population, they come to see one of Africa’s most heartening conservation success stories.
Back to the future
For many years, eastern Rwanda has been something of a tourism backwater. Established in 1934, Akagera is the country’s oldest national park, and it was once considered one of the finest wildlife reserves in the whole of Africa. Yet it suffered serious degradation during the Rwandan Civil War in the early 1990s. When huge numbers of refugees returned from neighboring countries later that decade, over half of the park was de-gazetted, parceled up into farms and settled with new villages.
Today, though, Akagera is thankfully a reserve reborn. The park may have shrunk to around 1,200 square kilometers (down from more than 2,500), but over 8,000 large animals and nearly 500 bird species now call its forest-fringed lakes, papyrus swamps, open savannah and rolling hills home. From elephant and buffalo to topi and giraffe, a recent census reveals wildlife numbers up across the board.
The reason for this success? Progressive management, backed by government support.
In late 2009, African Parks — a South Africa–based nonprofit organization that now manages six million hectares across 10 protected areas in seven African nations — signed an agreement with the Rwanda Development Board to jointly manage Akagera. The last seven years have seen effective law enforcement, community engagement and infrastructure development mitigate human-wildlife conflict and significantly boost the park’s tourism appeal.
“Since 2010, the number of park visitors has more than doubled,” says Sarah Hall, Akagera’s tourism and marketing manager and an African Parks employee. “Revenue is also up, from US$200,000 in 2010 to $1.3 million in 2016. All profits go back into the park.”
While burgeoning income is still less than the park’s $2.2 million budget (the shortfall is made up by donor money), the eventual aim is to make Akagera financially self-sustainable. Complementing the permanent and seasonal accommodation run by African Parks inside the park, a proposed five-star lodge on its northern edge should soon further boost visitor numbers.
“Akagera was once renowned for its beauty and biodiversity,” says Hall. “There’s still a long way to go, but with effective management, we can restore the park’s former glory for the benefit of both the Rwandan people and African wildlife.”
The restoration of Akagera’s glory took a big step forward recently with the highly anticipated arrival of two key species. With elephant, water buffalo and leopard already present, the reintroduction of lion and black rhinos into the park reestablished its “Big Five” status, putting it on an equal footing with other high-profile reserves such as the Kruger and Serengeti National Parks in South Africa and Tanzania.
In June 2015, Akagera welcomed seven lions from South Africa — the first to roam the park in 15 years. These are now flourishing, with a population already increased to 19 comprising adults, juveniles and a growing number of cubs. Since the introduction of the cats, the park has witnessed a 40-percent increase in domestic tourism and a 23-percent increase in overall park visitors.
Akagera’s lions were joined earlier this year by 18 black rhino, translocated 4,000 kilometers from South Africa via cargo plane. Akagera once supported around 50 of these critically endangered animals, but no rhino had been seen in the decade before reintroduction.
“Before the park boundary fence was constructed poaching was a huge problem,” admits Hall. “In 2013 we confiscated nearly 2,000 snares and arrested 220 poachers. Since then these numbers have dropped away to almost nothing. People have learned that they will get caught.”
Jes Grüner, director of Akagera National Park, knows his team will need to work even harder to protect the reserve’s newly established horned inhabitants. Yet with the park soon to acquire its own helicopter, he is also optimistic about the chances of building up a burgeoning rhino population.
“The food in the park is phenomenal and Rwanda is pretty secure,” he says. “Our primary goal is not to lose a single rhino. The carrying capacity of Akagera is around 150 of these magnificent animals.”
Together with law enforcement and tourism, community engagement lies at the core of African Parks’ approach to conservation in Akagera. The park now employs over 200 paid staff, of whom only four are non-Rwandan. This includes employees in park accommodation, rangers and community freelance guides.
“Things have really improved here since African Parks took over,” says John Habihirwe, a 25-year-old Rwandan who now works as a waiter in Ruzizi Tented Lodge, in the southern part of Akagera. “With my salary I can help my family, who live just outside the park.”
Around 70 rangers currently guard Akagera, some of whom already knew the park intimately from their days as poachers. Now trained in first aid, combat, and animal monitoring and tracking, many patrol the park on motorbikes purchased with assistance from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, headed by the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
Akagera’s 18 Rwandan freelance guides have all likewise received in-house training. They also have formed a co-operative to share their profits, and they collectively made $80,000 in 2016. The park keeps 5 percent of this as a nominal contribution toward conservation.
Freelance guide Denyse Mugwaneza has spent many years guiding in Akagera. Passionate about her job, she is currently studying for a conservation-related degree at a Rwandan university.
“Akagera is once again a place all Rwandans can be proud of,” says Mugwaneza. “More and more of us have a stake in its future. The last 25 years have been difficult for my country. But I’m so happy that this park is helping Rwanda to make the headlines for all the right reasons.”
Daniel Allen is a writer and photographer based in London whose work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Africa Geographic, The Sunday Times, The Guardian and CNN. “Having reported on so many demoralizing environmental situations around the globe, witnessing the ongoing comeback of Akagera firsthand was a real pleasure,” he says.