When Veronica Varekova, a renowned model from the Czech Republic, first came to Rwanda in 2009, she fell in love with the country.
Back then, she was a goodwill ambassador of the African Wildlife Foundation.
“This was my long journey of ten years being exposed to wildlife and conservation in Africa. I fell in love with the country immediately; I saw the conservation and tourism commitment which was extremely inspiring because in other countries things were going backward,” she says as she watches five Eastern black rhinos settling in their bomas at Akagera National Park following their arrival from Europe on Monday.
Clad in navy blue overall clothing, Varekova recalled her conversation with Rwandan authorities in which she was informed that the country was set to receive rhinos from South Africa.
“I said it would be lovely to contribute a few more,” she says.
Varekova then approached Mark Pilgrim, a rhino specialist at the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and Chief Executive Officer of Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom.
Pilgrim agreed to help fulfil the promise she had given to Rwanda. Moreover, Pilgrim’s work wasn’t an easy one.
That involved selecting the animals from different zoos and allowing them to grow to a certain age. That was almost three years ago.
At the beginning of the negotiations, the youngest black rhino, Jasiri, one of the five that were transported to Rwanda on Monday, was not yet born.
Jasiri, the female black rhino, was born in October 2016 and it is during that year that Varekova had a conversation with President Paul Kagame to help return the black rhinos to Rwanda.
“It took a bit of time but it is absolutely worth it. We have no other option than fighting for the survival of these incredible species,” she notes, before speaking about the moment the rhinos were being released into Akagera.
It was a moment of joy for the conservation activist. She shed tears as she watched the nervous-looking rhinos being offloaded from trucks and released into the small wooden fenced enclosures.
That is a story that is not-so-popular, but one which marks the beginning of the long journey of the Eastern black rhinos from Europe to Rwanda – the largest ever translocation of such species.
The Eastern black rhinos, considered to be critically endangered, from three European zoos, were gathered at Safari Park Dvur Kralove in Czech Republic before they could be transported to Rwanda.
The rhinos on board a chartered cargo plane, Boeing 747-400F owned by Air Atlanta Icelandic and operated by Magma Aviation, arrived in the wee hours on Monday. But the journey started at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning.
According to Jan Stejskal, who was part of the team that was in charge of transporting the rhinos, loading them on to trucks from their zoo in the Czech Republic took four hours, and they were then driven to the airport – a journey of three hours. It took six hours to be loaded on the plane.
“We then had to wait for two hours to get the green light to take off because there were too many flights above the Europe sky. It took us seven hours on a direct flight to Kigali,” he explained.
At around 6am on Monday the rhinos’ journey to what was once their forebears’ habitat – Akagera Park – began.
They were accompanied by a team of conservationists from Europe and Rwanda.
A team of journalists set off from Kigali to Akagera in Eastern Province to witness the rhinos’ release into Akagera.
The journey to Akagera
At a small town of Kayonza in Eastern Province, we overtook the three trucks that were carrying the three female and two male rhinos.
We later learnt that one of the trucks had a mechanical issue but was fixed shortly and continued journey.
On our way, we made a stopover at Akagera Game Lodge to take breakfast before we could embark on a long journey. Akagera Game Lodge is one of the thriving symbols of the park.
From 1pm we drove through the savannah park heading towards the Magashi peninsula on Lake Rwanyakazinga where the bomas of the rhinos are located.
The park is characterised by woodland, swamps, gentle hills and savannah. This gives one a chance to easily get access to different species that are hosted within this wild wetland.
On our way, we encountered zebras, giraffes, elephants, snakes, antelopes, rabbits, and different species of birds.
As we continued our way through the park, one of our vehicles had a puncture, forcing us to make a brief stopover before we finally arrived at our final destination at magashi peninsula at around 4pm.
Here, the mood was ecstatic as different people engaged in conversations.
The rhinos had already been released into their bomas.
We were briefed about by Jes Gruner, the Park Manager.
“Keep silent, switch off your flashlights and don’t wander around the bomas,” he said.
Rhinos are naturally aggressive and like thick vegetation.
Perhaps that pointed to why Jes was telling us to avoid noise not to disturb the once captive rhinos lest we wake their aggressive behaviour.
“It is of great honour for the Government of Rwanda to receive the five black rhinos,” Eugene Mutangana, the Head of Conservation at RDB, said, noting that this was part of implementing the rhino meta-population plan.
A subsequent handover ceremony took place between the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the Government of Rwanda at around 5p.m, marking the conclusion of the conservation project that also involved African Parks—the organisation that manages Akagera National Park.
As Varekova watched the rhinos waking up from their sedation, she couldn’t be more proud.
She says that the rhinos will be a huge contribution to conservation and massive contribution to the potential of this park.
The rhinos, Jasiri, Jasmine, Manny, Olmati and Mandela will stay here for some weeks to ensure they have time to acclimatise to their new environment.
Once they have adjusted, they will be released into a 10-hectare sanctuary where they will continue to be closely monitored for several months as they establish themselves in the area before being released into the wider park.
Mutangana told The New Times that there is a team of two veterinary specialists from Europe who will be working with other local specialists to take care of the rhinos.
In 1970’s Rwanda was home to vast wildlife animals. Rhinoceros and thousands of other wild animals made Akagera National Park a unique savannah park.
As years passed poaching activities increased and rhinos were killed and in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, a handful of them could be spotted.
The last black rhino was seen in Rwanda in 2007.
The Government and African Parks collaborated to reintroduce the rhinos and other animals that had almost extinct. 18 rhinos were first returned to Rwanda in 2017 from South Africa.
But the conservation efforts are growing. Today this park is home to the ‘Big Five’ – leopards, lions, elephants, rhinos and buffalos.