Akagera National Park is targeting to leverage domestic tourism on top of continued restoking of the game reserve to make it one of the top tour destinations in Africa.
Last year, the park registered a 12 per cent increase in visitor numbers with 36,250 total visitors, 52 per cent of those being nationals.
The park earned more than $1.3 million (over Rwf1bn) net in park revenue, representing an increase of more than 10 per cent in the year.
“Our outlook on 2017 is positive. We are hoping for continued increase in visitors and revenue to get closer to reaching financial sustainability but we will also have new challenges with rhinos arriving this year,” said Sarah Hall, the park’s Tourism and Marketing Manager.
Visitor numbers more than doubled in the past few years since African Parks, a non-profit conservation organisation managing 10 national parks and protected areas in seven African countries, took charge in 2010, under a public-private partnership with the government.
Opened in December 2012, Ruzizi Tented Lodge, a new addition to Akagera National Park, maintains five-star rating on TripAdvisor, an American travel website company that provides reviews of travel-related content. The eco-friendly lodge, located southwards on the edge of Lake Ihema, received the 2015 TripAdvisor certificate of excellence awarded to establishments that consistently achieve top reviews.
In 2016, more than 1,330 local students and 170 local leaders visited as part of the park’s annual environmental education programme; more than 2,400 students from 35 Rwandan institutions got free or discounted entry.
More than Rwf279 million (nearly $340,000) was spent in the local community on salaries, purchasing of building materials and food, hiring and technical support, and community activities, while 11,800 tree seedlings were planted in three schools bordering the park.
Davidson Mugisha, Director of Wildlife Tours Rwanda, a local tour operator, acknowledges that the park has seen an overhaul in various aspects including restocking of animals, infrastructure development, capacity building and law enforcement.
The park management says the lion population has more than doubled from seven more than a year to 16 now. Plans to reintroduce the black rhinoceros are in high gear too with the completion of the rhino boma.
Mugisha said: “They reintroduced lions and now, by March, possibly, black rhinos are coming too. This will make the park as one of the big five savannah parks in Africa, and a big selling point. It is important not to forget the big seven; the park has giraffes, crocodiles and hippos too. All these aspects of the park ease marketing for us and attract clients.”
Mugisha noted that on the infrastructure front, new routes have been introduced in and around the park. This, he said, increases the duration of visitors’ stay in the park since they now have more options.
“It also minimises stress on animals as vehicles will not congest in one route. There are various habitats in the park and the more the routes, the more habitats become accessible,” he said.
Besides a second sanctuary fence being put up and 60 grey crowned cranes brought as part of the rehabilitation programme, more than 100 kilometers of roads were graded and more than 50 kilometers of new road networks created.
Mugisha said guides are playing a central role in Akagera park’s rise. Guides are able to interpret nature in the park, “not just giving directions in the park” but ably telling its history and ecological factors as they are much more knowledgeable today.
Extensive training has seen all rangers certified as trackers, a digital radio network was installed, while a 24-hour control room is operational.
“When talking about bringing the big five, you also must consider how you will sustain them. And this entails proper fencing, increasing the number of rangers and engaging the community living around the park,” Mugisha said.
“Good law enforcement means increasing animal populations and more visitors. Many people come with the expectation to see the lions. The big cats are always admired by tourists but there are those who want to see birds too.”
Poaching is apparently on decline as only seven people were arrested last year when more than 4,500 patrols were conducted – an increase of more than 1,000 in 2015.
“Akagera Park has, I think, got the highest concentration of different bird species in a relatively small area than any other park in Africa. That tells a lot. There are so many birds, because of the ecological setup, with more than six lakes and abundance of vegetation which offer plenty of food and water,” Mugisha said.