Between 1970 and 1975, Rwanda had a lion population of about 300 in the Akagera National Park in the country’s Eastern Province.
The declining numbers of herbivores in the park (the natural prey for lions) and human-wildlife conflict took their toll and after the 1994 genocide, the so-called king of the jungle’s extinction became inevitable when the park was left unmanaged and was occupied by internally displaced people, especially herders, who poisoned the remaining few lions.
The last recorded sighting of a lion in the Akagera National Park was in 1998, according to African Parks, the non-profit organisation that is currently running the park in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
But after an absence of more than 15 years, African Parks recently welcomed the famous big cats back to Akagera when a pride of five female and two male lions, donated by &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, were translocated to Rwanda in a move that was described by African Parks as “a ground-breaking conservation effort for both the park and the country.”
“This is part of a larger programme that we have in place to restore the ecosystem of the park,” said Jes Gruner, the managing director of Akagera Management Company, a subsidiary of African Parks.
Rwanda’s initial plan was to import the lions from Kenya, but Kenyan conservationists protested, arguing that the move was not logical given that Kenya’s lion population was declining rapidly. The country currently has about 2,000 lions.
While addressing the press in the Akagera National Park on July 1 after receiving the lions, Mr Gruner said that the park also plans to reintroduce rhinos in a year’s time which, according to him, will make Akagera as good as any other park in East Africa such as Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara.
“The reintroduction of the lions and later rhinos will make Rwanda a competitive destination in the region,” Mr Gruner said, adding that the pride from South Africa are of breeding age and “we expect to have some cubs in Akagera within a year. The lion’s gestation period is short, 110 days, so we are certain they’ll multiply within a short time,” Mr Gruner said.
The lions, which cost RDB and African Parks $300,000 to bring to Akagera, are currently quarantined in a compound with an electric fence, where they are expected to stay for between two and three weeks to acclimatise before they are released into the wild.
The lion is listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of species facing decline, especially in East and West Africa, mainly due to lack of prey and human-wildlife conflict.
To confront the issue of human-wildlife conflict and save the lion from extinction, Akagera National Park now has a 120-kilometre long, three-metre high electrific fence and communities around the park have been sensitised about the importance of conserving wildlife.
According to Francis Gatare, the chief executive of RDB, a buffer zone has also been created outside the park to ensure that if animals escape from the confines of the park, they can be herded back before they encounter human beings. In addition, Mr Gatare said that the government has also initiated an insurance scheme to compensate farmers whose crops get destroyed by wildlife, so they “leave the animals alone.”
Even then, the management of the park is going an extra mile to monitor the lions through satellite collars to make sure that in case they stray into human settlements, they can immediately be detected and herded back into the park.
As far as availability of prey is concerned, Mr Gruner said Akagera’s new lions will not starve because there are now herds of zebras and antelopes in the park.
“About five years ago, we couldn’t afford to bring in lions because there weren’t enough zebras and antelopes for them to hunt,” said Mr Gruner, “but now we have at least 2,500 zebras and numerous antelopes.”
Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, which attracted 28,000 visitors last year, is also home to more than a dozen antelope species, hippos, zebras, buffalos, giraffes, topis, baboons, crocodiles, elephants and leopards.
Mr Gatare said that even though the government’s principal reason for reintroducing lions to the Akagera National Park is to restore the biodiversity and ecological balance of the park, the initiative also makes good business sense in terms of tourism.
“Most tourists want to see Africa’s Big Five, so these lions will definitely increase the attractiveness of the park,” he said, adding that tourists are now going to be able to “experience East Africa in Rwanda.”
“The package of Rwanda’s eco-tourism the Nyungwe rain forest, the mountain gorillas in the Virunga, the savannah in the Akagera National Park and a whole range of cultural tourism assets across the country – is a microcosm of East Africa,” he said.
He also pointed out that his organisation is currently working hard to change the misperception among many tourists that Rwanda’s tourism is only about the mountain gorillas.
“We want the world to know that in Rwanda we have diverse tourism products and not just the gorillas,” he said.
Last year, Rwanda attracted 1.17 million visitors earning $303 million. Out of this, $16.8 million came from park visits with the Volcanoes National Park, which is currently the country’s most visited, accounting for 93 per cent of the total revenue.
It is envisaged that the reintroduction of lions will boost visitor numbers to the Akagera National Park as well and increase chances of the country realising its target of $860 million tourism revenue in 2016.
The current $300 million a year is quite low compared with the over $1 billion each annually earned by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.