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Revisiting Akagera National Park’s Turbulent History

Revisiting Akagera National Park’s Turbulent History

Skin of a leopard killed by poachers in the past

While visiting Rwinkwavu Sector, in Kayonza District, I passed by the Akagera Community Center. This is a natural history site run by the community. It was one of those impromptu stopovers I usually make. No appointment, no problem. Kutibuka Ettienne, who introduced himself as a community attendant, was there to cater for my every need.

Ettienne guided me through the center’s museum and gave me a detailed account of the neighboring Akagera National Park’s history. Once upon a time, Akagera was much bigger than it is today. Land is not the only thing the park has lost over the years. The size of its wildlife population and biodiversity also plummeted at some point.

Settlements around the park brought forth a new kind of pressure. Population growth and the advent of returning refugees made it hard to control constant human interference with nature.

Cases of poaching were common. In other scenarios, animals were killed because they preyed on livestock and destroyed crops. Conflicting interests in land ownership and utilization led to frictions between community members and the authorities tasked to protect the park.

To manage the inevitable animosity, a new paradigm giving a significant stake to the surrounding communities emerged. Through tourism, sustainable non-consumptive means of income were created. Parties sharing a common goal were unified to safeguard mutual long-term benefits.

Spurred by the pre-pandemic growing number of tourists visiting the park, tourism became the driving force behind conservation efforts. The new conservation policies are formulated while putting the community into consideration. Through revenue sharing, the government injects 10% of the park’s revenue into a wide range of projects designed to improve the welfare of the surrounding communities. This is done in order to further extend the economic benefits of tourism to the people and give them a sense of ownership.

Initially, law enforcers had to step up their game but co-ownership is what eventually became the game changer. Today, the community is at the forefront of conservation. It finally makes economic sense to protect natural resources as opposed to depleting them.

Through deliberate revival efforts, Akagera has regained its status as the home of the Big Five. In 2019, the park received more than 49,000 visitors and generated USD 2.5 million. That was a 25% increase in comparison to 2018. 2020 was projected to register record sales but Covid had other ideas. Despite the current recession, the future of the park looks bright. The same can be said about its surrounding communities.

At Akagera Community Center, I soaked up interesting information on Savannah wildlife. I also learned one or two things about beekeeping and low investment, high reward farming practices. Before I left, I took a minute to mourn the loss of animals killed by poachers during that dark chapter in history of the park.

The author is currently visiting all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Kayonza District is sponsored by Ikaze Rwanda Tours, Akagera Rhino Lodge, Imigongo Art Center, Jambo Beach, Silent Hill Hotel and Ihema View Campsite

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