For 80 years Akagera National Park has been a refuge for wildlife and biodiversity in eastern Rwanda. Since the park was first gazetted in 1934 it has been home to lions, buffalos, zebras, antelopes, monkeys, birds and much more.
It has played host to researchers and conservationists who have facilitated the preservation of the park’s ecosystems; tourists from around the world who are now visiting attractions in the park, generating revenue for the country; and young students and local community members who are the future gatekeepers of the park.
To date, the park is the destination for most Rwandan travelers. With easy access to the park, taking a day trip with family and friends or staying overnight at the stunning Ruzizi Lodge is a great way to spend a weekend in Rwanda.
Often compared to the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, Akagera is very different and home to a greater variety of stunning landscapes and amazing wildlife.
Upon entering the park’s gate almost immediately the adventure begins—baboons and large Nile monitor lizardswelcome you at the entrance and herds of topi and zebras can be seen around the corner.
Driving throughout the park you can see the diverse and seemingly endless landscape shifting from expansive grassy hills and acacia woodlands to bright shimmering lakes, with their riverine vegetation, tall trees, wetlands and swamps.
Being the biggest protected wetland system in Central-East Africa, Akagera is a unique opportunity to discover these habitats and the distinct wildlife and birds that can easily be found there—from the lowly dung beetle to the giant hippo to the much rarer shoebill or papyrus gonolek.
A visitor to the park can spend a couple of hours watching all the activity along the lakes and still leave wanting more. As Rwandans we often take these attractions for granted, not fully recognising the effort it takes to ensure the park not only survives, but also thrives as a destination.
Under Belgian rule the park was designated as Parc Nationale de l’Akagera in 1934 and it later became a protectorate of the national government in 1962.
In the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, thousands of refugees came into Rwanda bringing with them the remainder of their belongings including livestock. The government then had to relinquish two thirds of the park as grazing land for the livestock.
Over the next several years, the conflict between those residing along the park boundaries and the wildlife within the park escalated to dangerous levels, with fatal consequences on both sides. The tourism board then took significant steps to curb these challenges.
Continued efforts to minimise human-wildlife conflict include not only building physical infrastructure but also educating communities on the value of the park and the wildlife within.
In 2009, Rwanda Development Board (RDB) contracted African Parks to manage the Akagera National Park, and a public-private partnership was created--the Akagera Management Company which today, manages the conservation, tourism, law enforcement and community development aspects of the park.
The Akagera Management Company has made significant refurbishments to the park, built the Ruzizi Tented Lodge which has increased accommodation options in the park, increased community initiatives and maintained the park as a source of pride for Rwandans.
So what is our role in this? What role do Rwandans play in promoting and preserving this incredible national landmark that is not just a breathtaking tourist attraction, but is also a beacon of conservation in East Africa? Akagera represents an opportunity for us.
An opportunity for Rwandans to re-discover our country’s points of pride, to invest in the preservation of their wildlife, to generate revenue by exploring and touring the park, to contribute to Rwanda’s growing economy through domestic tourism.
It will also allow us to create our own unique experiences in this space that will enable us to act as informed and dynamic ambassadors of our country.
Previous and ongoing efforts by RDB to promote domestic tourism have resulted in an increased interest in the park, and an ever-increasing number of tourism stakeholders and transport companies have become involved in developing diverse packages and providing options for park visitors to conduct day- and overnight visits that range from camping to luxurious lodge stays.
As we mark the 80th anniversary of Akagera National Park, let us make a concerted effort to not only familiariSe ourselves with the wonders of the park, but to ensure that Rwanda continues to grow as a leader in conservation initiatives.
Let us celebrate this incredible milestone by playing a more active role in Akagera National Park’s continued growth as citizens of and stakeholders in this beautiful country.
The writer is a co-founder and Managing Director of Illume Creative Studio