Akagera National Park; The intricate link between conservation and community
Rwanda has a dark history with a civil war in 1991 and the tragedy of the 1994 genocide. Despite this, Rwanda appears to be a country that is turning itself around. There is certainly a conscious move within the country towards conservation and as a result tourism. Rwanda has a zero tolerance on plastic bags and is considered to be one of the cleanest, if not, the cleanest country in Africa. The world could learn a lot from this small land locked African country.
Akagera National Park, the only place in Rwanda home to the big five, is located on Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania. The park is home to 480 bird species and is the largest wetland in Africa. The reserve was founded in 1934, at which time it was 2,500 square kilometres. Large sections of the park were reallocated as farmland, a result of the civil war and the genocide, and by 1997 the park had halved in size; it now spans just over 1000 square kilometres.
Poaching has been a problem and many species including lion, rhino and a number of antelope species became extinct in the park. Poaching provided much-needed income for the remote communities around Akagera during the country’s political unrest. This prompted the formation of a partnership between African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board in 2010 and the assumption of the management of Akagera National Park.
Since the formation of this joint partnership the reserve and surrounding villages have seen huge changes. In an effort to reduce friction between humans and wildlife a 120 km solar powered predator-proof fence was erected. In 2015 lions were reintroduced. Within two years the population had tripled. In 2017 an additional two males were introduced to increase genetic diversity.
2017 also saw the reintroduction of 18 eastern black rhinos. This project was such a success that this year, as part of the largest relocation of rhinos from Europe to Africa, five zoo born black rhinos now call Akagera home.
Alongside a focus on wildlife, the partnership has invested in education programs for local communities. The community and the National Park now go hand in hand; one cannot survive without the other. A percentage of the park fees goes to local communities and locals are employed within the park. Those that once poached now form part of the anti-poaching team. The locals are friendly and educated in conservation.
In 2018 44,000 tourists visited the park, half of whom were Rwandan nationals. In eight years the revenue generated from tourism has increased by 900 percent. This figure is set to increase with the opening this year of Akagera’s first luxury camp, Magashi, run by Wilderness Safaris.
It goes without saying that the success of the reserve is important for the conservation of wildlife, but it is also a valuable source of income for the surrounding communities. There is an understanding of the importance of protecting wildlife. After all, conserving pockets of paradise like this guarantees not just the preservation of species but also income and livelihoods for future generations.