High on Mutumba Hill, Akagera National Park’s highest ridge, herds of bushbuck, topi, and zebra stand in the tall grass, overlooking the network of lakes that dominates the vast valley below.
At the bottom of the hill, hippos, buffalo, elephants and crocodiles dot the shores of Lake Ihema and the surrounding wetlands.
The calls of one of the 450-odd species of bird drift in the gentle breeze. In a country as crowded as Rwanda, the serenity of the park is unmatched.
Akagera National Park hasn’t always been this peaceful. Over its 80-year history, the park — one of Africa’s oldest — has seen more than its fair share of problems. But, remarkably, through cycles of war, resettlements, neglect, crime and mismanagement, it has managed to not only survive but thrive too.
Covering 1,122 square kilometres on Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania, Akagera was first gazetted by the Belgian colonialists in 1934, during the rule of King Mutara III, as a purely scientific venture.
At the time, it covered over 2,500 square kilometers, or roughly 10 per cent of the country.
The Rwandan government took over the park after Independence from Belgium in 1962. The park was then opened up to tourism in an effort to generate revenue, but the new government was ill equipped to manage such a large and diverse park. Poaching led to a decline in animal populations.
In 1975, after nearly all the elephants in Akagera had been poached, 26 young elephants were relocated from Bugesera district to the park. The older, larger elephants in the Bugesera herds were all shot, as they were too big to transport by air, and were causing too much of a disturbance in the highly populated Bugesera district.
One of the youngest elephants from Bugesera, Mutware, was raised by humans, as he was too young to fend for himself. Over the years, he has become somewhat of a legend in the park.
Half domesticated and most likely traumatised from watching his herd killed, he is unpredictable, unafraid of humans and unaccepted by other elephants. Grumpy and alone, he roves the park by himself now, occasionally causing disturbances.
Things in Akagera picked up in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Nearly 300 lions roamed the park then and giraffe were introduced from Kenya.
Poaching and other problems however persisted, but these were soon overshadowed by the biggest challenge the park, and the country, had encountered yet. Genocide.
When the genocide started in 1994, the park was abandoned as all staff fled, from the horror or to take part in it. When the genocide ended, the park was flooded with refugees streaming over the border from neighbouring Tanzania. Countless people settled in the park and it was transformed into grazing land for nearly 40,000 cattle.
As Rwanda recovered, the government began to take control of the park again. In 1997, the government re-gazetted the park, hiving off nearly two-thirds of its land for human settlement. The decision was a practical one; thousands of returning refugees needed a place to settle in the most densely populated country on the continent.
The downsizing, however, was perhaps one of the best things that had happened to the park. “The resizing may have very well saved the park,” said Jes Gruner, Akagera’s current manager.
After all, national parks do not exist independent of the communities they surround. The reallocation of park lands to citizens was perhaps a sign of the future commitment to the local community that Rwanda bases much of its tourism and conservation success on.
In Akagera, along with Nyungwe Rainforest in the south, and Volcanos National Park in the north, a percentage of tourism profits are invested directly back into the surrounding communities.
Funds from the parks contribute to development, livelihood, and educational programme in an effort to foster a symbiotic relationship between locals and the parks.
In the 2000s, Dubai World took over the management of Akagera, but without the know-how or a passion for conservation, the park struggled. By 2007, the last lion and last rhino had disappeared, and other populations of animals had fallen as well.
In 2009, the Rwanda Development Board struck a deal with South African-based African Parks Network. African Parks manages seven parks on the continent, with the focus on conservation.
The public-private-partnership entailed the creation of a joint management company, Akagera Management Company. African Parks took a 51 per cent share in the park, with a plan to invest millions of dollars in donor money to rehabilitate the park and eventually “enable Akagera to be financially sustainable by being independent of donor funding in the foreseeable future,” as explained at the time by African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead.
RDB took responsibility for the remaining 49 per cent.
African Parks immediately set about reviving the struggling park. But despite all that African Parks brought to the table, scepticism over the deal still persisted in Kigali over funds allocation and the long length of the 20-year lease. But it soon has become obvious that the fears were unfounded.
Since the new management came in in 2010, tourist revenues have grown from $200,000 to $800,000 in 2013, and are only expected to rise.
Unlike most other national parks, half of all tourists to Akagera are Rwandans. Poaching has decreased dramatically. After an uptick in arrests of poachers in 2010, as the new ranger force took hold of the problem, arrests have fallen from 190 per year, to two.
Animal populations have increased nearly across the board and infrastructure including the exclusive Ruzizi Tented Lodge, a new welcome centre, and an electric fence has been built.
Perhaps the most exciting symbol of Akagera’s resurgence, however, is the reintroduction of lions.
Despite recent statements from Kenyan conservation groups opposing the transfer of eight lions from Kenya to Rwanda, park manager Gruner argues that Akagera is more than ready to receive lions.
“We are ready for lions. To those who say we haven’t fixed our problems, come to Akagera and see for yourselves.”
Gruner expects lions to do so well in Akagera, that in several years the park will be able to give lions back to Kenya to return the favour, creating an “animal bank” of sorts. After lions arrive this year, the park hopes to import black rhinos in 2015.
Throughout years of ups and downs, hardships and golden years, Akagera’s future has never looked so bright. Many challenges remain, but there’s nothing — not civil war, mismanagement, poaching, or neglect — that Akagera hasn’t bounced back from yet.