THE OLDEST OF RWANDA’S THREE NATIONAL PARKS, AKAGERA IS THE ONLY PROTECTED SAVANNAH REGION IN THE COUNTRY.
Home to more than 8,000 large mammals and 500 bird species, wildlife populations are flourishing in this spectacular landscape due to effective law enforcement and community engagement. African Parks successfully reintroduced seven lions into the park in 2015, bringing the species back to Rwanda after being extirpated for almost 20 years; and plans are in place to reintroduce rhino after an almost ten year absence, making this Rwanda’s only Big Five park.
In 1997, following the Rwandan civil war, much of the park was reallocated as farmland for returning refugees, leaving it considerably smaller at 1,122km². The war had taken its toll on the national park, completely decimating Akagera’s wildlife and wiping out its lion population. This, coupled with the highest population density in continental Africa, meant that Rwanda had suffered extensive biodiversity loss.
In late 2009, African Parks signed a joint management agreement with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) establishing the Akagera Management Company (AMC) in 2010 with board members from both the RDB and African Parks jointly managing the park.
This collaborative partnership has overseen a number of flagship projects, which have not only created employment for local communities, but also enhanced the park’s tourism appeal and mitigated human-wildlife conflict.
AS THE ONLY PROTECTED SAVANNAH REGION IN RWANDA, AKAGERA IS THE LAST REMAINING REFUGE FOR SAVANNAH-ADAPTED ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN THE COUNTRY.
Akagera has exceptionally high levels of biodiversity for a park of its size, with an extensive network of freshwater lakes and papyrus swamps forming the largest protected wetland in central Africa - home to rare and elusive species such as the sought-after shoebill and swamp-dwelling Sitatunga.
The park is named after the Akagera River that flows along its eastern boundary and feeds into a labyrinth of lakes, of which the largest is Lake Ihema. The rolling hills of Acacia and Brachystegia woodland coupled with scattered grassland and swamp-fringed lakes along the meandering Akagera watercourse combine to create a park of breath-taking scenic beauty.
As a result of regular patrols and close community engagement, wildlife numbers are on the rise, with aerial censuses showing a positive increase in animal populations in recent years. This has culminated in the reintroduction of lion after a 15-year absence, due to be followed by black rhino, after which, it will officially be declared a Big Five park.
Until the reintroduction of lion, of the large predators, only leopard (which are regularly seen) and hyena were still found in the park. However, smaller predators remain well-represented with healthy populations of several mongoose species, viverrid species, serval and side-striped jackal.
Of the primate family, olive baboons and vervet monkeys are common. A far rarer site is the secretive blue monkey, which, until recently, was thought to have become extinct in Akagera.
Elephant, giraffe and hippopotamus are amongst the largest mammals found in the park, joining a number of naturally occurring large plains game, such as buffalo, topi, zebra, defassa waterbuck, the secretive roan antelope and the statuesque eland.
Species of smaller herbivores include duiker, oribi, bohor reedbuck, klipspringer, bushbuck and impala.
Nearly 500 bird species
Akagera is an important ornithological site, with rarities such as the shoebill and paparus gonolek (which are both restricted to the papyrus swamps), the localised red-faced barbet and the swamp flycatcher.
Masai giraffe were introduced into the park from Kenya back in 1986, with the current population estimated at 60 individuals, while elephant, which once occurred naturally in the park, were reintroduced in 1975 and now number about 90 individuals.
Every two years, an aerial census is conducted in order to monitor population trends. In addition, a number of elephant have been fitted with GPS collars as part of a monitoring initiative to learn more about the movement of elephant populations in the park, while rangers conduct monthly road counts in order to gain a clearer understanding of animal densities and distributions.
Extinct in the Area
Akagera’s legacy of introducing absent wildlife species dates as far back as 1958, when five black rhino females and two males were brought in from Tanzania and subsequently thrived in Akagera, numbering more than 50 by the late 1970s. Unfortunately, wide-scale poaching in the 1980s wiped out its rhino population almost entirely, with the park’s last confirmed sighting of black rhino in 2007.
Grey Crowned Crane Project
Akagera is the site of a project to rehabilitate populations of grey crowned cranes previously kept as pets in and around Kigali. Managed by the Rwanda Development Board, Akagera National Park, and veterinarian, Olivier Nsengimana, it aims to release previously captive grey crowned cranes back into the wilds of Rwanda, where it is estimated that less than 200 remain. A number of rehabilitated cranes have already been released and are breeding in the park.
A key aspect of community engagement is the education of schoolchildren on the importance of biodiversity by exposing them to their national heritage in the form of Rwanda’s protected parks and sensitizing them to the introduction of new species, such as lion.
Regular environment educational awareness sessions have been held in the park, with well over 1,000 students from schools visiting Akagera each year along with local leaders and educators.
From just 59 employees prior to 2010, Akagera’s staff force has nearly tripled over the years, with the vast majority coming from local communities. In addition, a significant amount is spent annually on locally-hired staff salaries and the purchase of local materials and services.
This is of huge importance, as the strengthening of community ties is essential for the park’s long-term sustainability.
Funds go towards infrastructure projects that have greatly improved the quality of life for surrounding communities, from the construction of social infrastructure (schools, health centres and libraries), and water provision sites, to the development of local associations and small enterprises.
Revenue Sharing Scheme
The Rwanda Development Board’s revenue sharing scheme sees 5 percent of the total revenue generated by its three national parks (Akagera, Volcanoes and Nyungwe National Parks) shared with local communities. Those living in the areas surrounding Akagera receive 30% of these shared revenues.
As the tourism offering expands, so too will employment opportunities, but it is equally important to ensure that the wider community benefits from the ongoing conservation of Akagera, beyond those directly employed by the park.
A significant amount is spent on locally-hired staff salaries and the purchase of local materials and services.
Special Guarantee Fund:
Five percent of total revenue is allocated to the Special Guarantee Fund, which was set up by government to compensate community members that suffer losses as a result of human-wildlife conflict.
While incidents of human-wildlife conflict have declined significantly since the completion of the government-funded western boundary fence in 2013, it still remains an issue for communities that live on the periphery of the park.
Lion Sensitisation Programme
A comprehensive community sensitisation initiative was launched ahead of the lion reintroduction, which comprised the screening of a conservation documentary in 12 locations, reaching 6,680 residents. It also included the staging of a play, The Lion King, to promote coexistence with lions at 13 venues and performed by pupils from local schools. Finally, a Lion Cup football tournament was hosted, featuring 16 teams and watched by 11,200 spectators. This culminated in the streets being lined by local community members to welcome the lions on their approach to the new home.
AS A RESULT OF THE EFFECTIVENESS OF AKAGERA’S LAW ENFORCEMENT TEAM IN RECENT YEARS THERE HAS BEEN A DECLINE IN THE NUMBER OF ARRESTS, POACHING INCIDENTS AND SNARES REMOVED, WITH A MARKED REDUCTION IN WILDLIFE-RELATED CRIME WITHIN THE PARK.
This was not always the case. When the Akagera Management Company first took over the management of the park in 2010, an understaffed scout force and lack of resources posed a major challenge to the protection of the park.
To address this, park management, together with the Rwanda Development Board, and Rwanda’s Police and Defence Forces, collaborated on a comprehensive assessment of the law enforcement team. Rangers who did not meet the assessment criteria were retrenched, and new rangers were recruited. The result was a greatly strengthened team under the leadership of a new head and deputy head of law enforcement.
These efforts resulted in a significant number of arrests and thousands of snares being removed during the course of the year – both of which can be directly attributed to intensified patrol coverage and a more motivated team. In the following years, the number of arrests and snares collected declined, along with a significant drop in the number of animals poached, indicating that the intensified efforts have produced positive results.
DUE TO IMPROVED LAW ENFORCEMENT EFFORTS THE NUMBER OF ARRESTS, SNARES COLLECTED AND POACHING INCIDENTS HAVE ALL DECREASED.
An anti-poaching dog programme, funded by the Rwanda Development Board, has seen a number of highly-trained dogs joining the anti-poaching unit at Akagera National Park. Used to track and restrain poachers in the park, the dogs are accommodated at newly-constructed kennels at the park’s headquarters.