Feeling at home in Akagera park

Sunday October 8 2017

Sheba the lioness enjoys her ‘lunch’ at the Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

Sheba the lioness enjoys her ‘lunch’ at the Akagera National Park in Rwanda. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI 

By SUSAN MUUMBI
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We surprised the leopard. Resting under a tree, minding its own business, the big blue bus suddenly appeared.

Suresh, quick on the shutter, captured the beautiful animal as it relocated to a quieter spot where it could snooze undisturbed.

“We” were a group of media practitioners from all over the world on a game drive through Akagera National Park in late August courtesy of the Rwanda Development Board.

The savannah landscape gets its name from Akagera River, considered the remotest source of Nile River.

The park was gazetted in 1934. It is home to the big five — lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros — 525 species of birds, four primate species — olive baboons, vervet monkey, blue monkey and bush baby — 100 elephants, and several other wild animals.

Creating ‘friendly’ neighbours

The park wasn’t always a thriving ecosystem. After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, returnees needed to be resettled and a section of the park was hived off for them.

From 2,700km2, the park was reduced to 1,120km2.

Many returnees kept cattle, and they killed wildlife that threatened their animals.

In 2010, the government, through the Rwanda Development Board, signed a 20-year agreement with African Parks, a wildlife conservation firm, to manage the park. Now an electric fence all around the park keeps the animals inside and poachers outside.

Repopulation

The last lion spotted in the park was in 1999. In 2015, seven lions were brought in, and in May, two male lions were added to the park. It is estimated that here are now 19 lions in the park. The lions feel right at home.

We came across the lion Ngabo and lioness Shema. Shema had just “made lunch” by killing a topi antelope, and was sharing it with Ngabo.

The rest of the topi herd stood about 100 metres away; were they wondering if they would ever see their friend again?

The cycle of life continues. Passing by a buffalo skull, we asked our community guide Anaclet what had caused its death. He said that it had died of “natural causes.” There are many “natural causes” that could kill a buffalo in the wild, but he did not specify exactly what.

Anaclet could tell from the horn structure that it was a female as the frontal lobe is separate; and there is no suture in the male skull.

It is said that in the 1970s, more than 50 black rhinos lived in Akagera, but the last confirmed sighting of the species had been in 2007. 

In May, 18 Eastern black rhinos from South Africa were reintroduced to the park. The rhinos are clearly feeling right at home in Akagera, as the first wild rhino calf to be born in Rwanda in over a decade happened just four months after they were reintroduced.

One of the translocated rhinos bore the calf on September 22, perfect timing as it was World Rhino Day.

Other animals imported to the park were six Maasai giraffes from Kenya in 1986. The giraffe population is currently more than 80. We spotted three.

Threat

A potential threat to wildlife is the tsetse fly. To manage the insect, the park management has set up blue and black flags. The flies are attracted by the blue colour, and the black colour confuses them as they think it is an animal. The flags contain a chemical that sterilises the male flies.

Since 2013, 1,000 tsetse flags have been placed in the park along densely vegetated roads. There have been no known cases of sleeping sickness.

So much to do

Some animals can only be spotted at night. A night game drive costs $40 per person.

Tourists can also go on a boat ride in Lake Ihema, where they can see crocodiles, hippos and birds. The boat ride is $35 for both local and international tourists.

There are three campsites in the park, one in the northern part and two in the south. Camping costs $25 if you have your own tent, or you can hire one for an additional $25.

Lake Sakai, inside the park, is said to be ideal for fishing.