In 1934, when Akagera savanna was turned into a national park, lions, rhinoceros together with other big animals, were roaming in the low altitude park of eastern Rwanda.
The savanna landscape, whose name came from Akagera River considered the remotest source of Nile River, is 2,700 square kilometers long.
There were various animal species including elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalos, zebras and 11 species of antelopes, enjoying the protected savanna habitat which is endowed with some 10 lakes, according to Daniel Nishimwe, the Managing Director of Guide & Car Rent, a company that offers services to tourists visiting the park.
Referring to the existence of the large lion population in the park, Olivier Mahoro, from Wilson Tours, a travel agency, said that Akagera was the first Park in Africa with a high lion concentration (high lion density compared to the size of the park).
However, after the genocide against the Tutsi which resulted in the death of more than one million Rwandans, and exile of many others, a big portion of the park was given to the Rwandans upon repatriation as they needed land on which to cultivate crops for livelihood, and pasture for their cows.
As a result, Nishimwe said, the government decided to give a large portion of the park to the people in need, a move which saw the size of the park reduced from 2,700 km2 to about 1,100 km2.
Given that the people who were settled near the park had cattle, Nishimwe said the cows would go to graze in the park, and the lions killed the cows, or even went out of the park to hunt the cows for prey.
That situation was a big blow to lion population as the residents looked for ways to kill the animals so as to save their cows.
The residents used a drug called ‘Kalo’, and they killed the lions, he said pointing out that the drug was so powerful that it could kill up to five times.
“If a cow eats such a drug, it dies and if a lion consumes the dead cow’s meat, it dies,” Nishimwe explains.
He said the last three lions which had not yet fallen victim to the fatal drug were last spotted in 1999. From that time until 2015, there were no lions in Akagera.
Talking about rhinos, Mahoro noted they were snared, and that they were subject of poaching as people were attracted to their horn which some people believe has some healing powers.
According to Rwanda Development Board (RDB), back in the 1970s, more than 50 black rhinos thrived in Akagera National Park, but they suffered the pressure of wide-scale poaching such that the last confirmed sighting of the species was in 2007.
Wildlife restoration efforts
Mahoro said that in 2010, the government through Rwanda Development Board (RDB) signed a 20-year agreement with African Parks, a wildlife conservation firm, to manage Akagera National Park.
To ensure better management of the park, the organization was given a mandate to increase the number of animal species, ensuring that Africa’s five big animals are seen in the park again and fence the park, all of which he said has so far been achieved – with the park currently having an electric wire fence.
“Such a fence is intended to prevent animals from getting out of the park and stop people from entering the park,” he said.
The big five animals made up of the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros is now available in the Park, which Mahoro said is something to appreciate.
Seven lions were brought into Akagera in 2015, and the number of the lions in the park has grown to 19 according to Nishimwe.
Now, the roaring of the lion is combined with the singing of some 525 species of birds in Akagera as conservation efforts in the park gain momentum. 20 Eastern black rhinos were reintroduced in 2016.
“It’s exciting that Rwanda has a big five game park ... so, people can comfortably come here for game viewing, either day drive or night drive or both safaris and see some of these animals,” said Linda Mutesi, Tourism Marketing Manager at RDB.
As per African Parks, there are less than 5,000 black rhinos in the wild, of which approximately 1,000 are the Eastern black rhino subspecies.
Akagera received over 35,000 tourists in 2016.
RDB targets to generate about $444 million in revenues from tourism, from about $404 million that the sector generated in 2016.