When you think about Conservation in Africa you probably think of a battle that is being lost. The local and international conservation headlines read desperate times for wildlife. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Good news arrived on the evening of May 12th, as Shema, one of five lionesses reintroduced to Akagera National Park in Rwanda, was spotted with three new cubs. Two of the other lionesses, sisters Umwari and Kazi are also suspected to be pregnant after mating with the dominant male, Ntwari.
Lions have not been present here since the Rwandan Genocide two decades ago. But In June 2015, the quiet was broken by a roar when African Parks successfully relocated seven South African lions to Akagera, including five females and two males.
Akagera has a host of success stories, from fragile dragonflies to mighty lions. It is the oldest of Rwanda’s three national parks and the only protected Savannah region in the country. At 112,000 Hectares it is viable size for a thriving ecosystem and is home to more than 8,000 large mammals and 500 bird species. At present her wildlife populations are flourishing thanks to effective law enforcement and community engagement, and it’s not just the wildlife that is thriving, local communities are too. But it wasn’t always like this.
In 1994 the Rwandan genocide not only decimated Rwanda’s people but its wildlife populations too. After the cessation of violence, portions of parkland were distributed to returning refugees as farmland. However, an absence of park management coupled with one of the highest population densities in Africa resulted in human wildlife conflict and lion populations quickly disappeared from Akagera.
In 2010 The Akagera Management Company was established. Spearheaded by African Parks and The Rwandan Development board this partnership launched a number of flagship projects and is one of the main reasons why the park is returning to its once wild abundance. These projects not only create employment opportunities for local communities but also mitigate human wildlife conflict in the settlements around the park.
The ripple effects are far-reaching for both wildlife and humans; with increased community involvement and a flourishing wildlife population, the tourism appeal of Akagera is growing and guides and rangers in the park are improving their skills.
A number of livelihood diversification projects have been successfully implemented to address these needs, such as the Community Freelance Guides organization which offers professional guiding services. This enables local guides to gain financially from growing tourism at Akagera, and encourages locals to appreciate and get more involved in conservation.
The most recent success at Akagera has been the reintroduction of lions to the park. The new lions are genetically diverse, specifically selected from two different lion families to ensure the strongest possible gene pool for the founding stock. The two male lions come from a government reserve on the Mozambican border called Tembe Elephant Park, and they are totally unrelated. The females come from three different prides and were bonded prior to their relocation. All the lions were thoroughly vetted and each has been micro chipped so that they can be individually identified.
Every detail was taken care of in the procurement of the lions; Rwanda is a very specific environment, humid and prone to rain with lush green and swampy landscapes. The lions come from a humid area not far from the coastal regions in South Africa, so little adaptation is necessary.
Even the Community members have welcomed the lions back to Rwanda which has promoted Rwanda Wildlife Tours. They identify the arrival of lions as a new draw card for their growing tourism market and are excited to be involved in the success of the park.
It has been several months and the lions appear to be doing well. After their long absence, many rangers at Akagera had never experienced lions and did not know what to expect when patrolling in the field. African Parks drew on the expertise of Lion Guardians to train their rangers to become protectors and ambassadors for these lions. Lion Guardians is a conservation organization dedicated to finding and enacting long-term solutions for people and lions to coexist.
Plans are also in place to reintroduce black rhino, a species that has not been seen in the park for almost a decade. Canine dog units have been trained to reduce the risk of poaching and already poaching numbers on the downfall, from 180 in 2012 to just 29 in 2014.
On a smaller scale but no less impressive, three German conservationists surveying the Dragonfly populations in Rwanda for their research on the status of East African Dragonflies recently discovered that Akagera is home to a much wider variety of Dragonfly species than previously recorded! This kingdom of flying jewels went from 36 to 89 separate species with an estimated 50 still to add. Amongst these discoveries, two species are potentially new to science, and 20 are new to the country.
With so much potential and a strong working relationship between locals and park management, Akagera appears to be a hot spot for conservation success. Visitor numbers grow year on year with Rwandan Nationals comprising of 50% of the visitors including school children on educational visits. With the reintroduction of rhino, Akagera will be Rwanda’s only big five national park, further enhancing the country’s appeal as an international tourism destination.