We recently visited Akagera National Park in northeastern Rwanda to fill in our understanding of the amazing progress being made in this small nation to protect important habitat and wildlife populations. Akagera, named after the river of the same name, includes montane forests, savannah and wetlands in its 1120 square kilometers. The park was badly damaged during the civil war in 1994 and in the following years when half of the park was made available for settlement and agriculture. Although the park’s area shrunk, it still provides viable habitat for many of Africa’s savannah species. which are slowly being re-established.
On our brief visit, we were quite taken with every aspect of the park. I smiled when I read a scathing complaint on Tripadvisor.com about tsetste flies in the park. The writer must not have ever been among wildebeest and zebras in Tanzania or Kenya during migration. Savannah parks all have tsetse flies, but the amazing experiences are worth the minor annoyance. Akagera has incredible birding, antelope populations (topi, eland, reedbuck, bushbuck, impala, and sittatunga), buffalo, elephants, zebras, giraffe, and black rhinos. The wetlands are amazing with lots of hippos, monitor lizards and wading birds. We enjoyed the wildlife watching very much.
The big cats are, for the most part, missing, though leopards are occasionally sighted. The park managers hope to restore lion populations in coming years. The Stichting African Parks Foundation and their U.K. and American non-profit affiliates manage the African Parks Network, which provides primary funding for selected parks throughout Africa. They took over Akagera in 2010 in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board. This great program takes on some of the most challenging parks in Africa and provides conservation management and careful business management to rebuild them. They work under a 20-year partnership with the government to make the park operate sustainably to give it the best chance of long-term success as a viable conservation area that also provides and encourages tourism opportunities.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Jes Gruner, Park Manager, and Sarah Hall, Marketing and Tourism Development Manager, at the new Ruzizi Lodge near the south gate of the park. They are rightfully proud of Ruzizi Lodge, this incredible addition to the existing park amenities, which include Akagera Game Lodge, a concession in the park. Jes and Sarah designed and built Ruzizi with regional materials and local craftsmen. The result is amazing. Trees that were growing where the lodge was to be built were incorporated into the building and still grow through the thatched roof. Logs washed up on the shore of Lake Ihema were incorporated into the decks and fencing. It all feels very organic and very Rwandan.
Jes and Sarah explained the challenges of the park with optimism. They must confront and arrest poachers on a regular basis. They are committed to improving the quality of the visitor experience with more professional guiding, reintroduction of native animals and collaboration with local communities. Their management system recognizes that partnerships are key to success and local community leaders, governmental wildlife/park agencies, commercial enterprises and financial partners are included in their management processes.
Tent camps like Rusizi create jobs for local people and give guests a unique experience with wildlife and sense of place in the park. We found the tent cabin in which we stayed to be equal to and in some cases better than very nice ones in Kenya and Tanzania. The quality of food and service was exceptional with Ian, the lodge manager, and Eric, a server, caring for us thoughtfully. Our tent overlooked the water of Lake Ihema with hippos snorting in the shallows. The cabins and walkways are elevated so nightly visits by hippos moving onto land to graze are no threat to guests or hippos. The bathrooms have a tub, shower and two lavatories along with a flush toilet so creature comforts are as good as any five star hotel.
We left our tent flaps open all night with just the screens between us and the night music provided by nature, letting the light from the moon and stars shine through. When morning came we sat on our front porch awhile enjoying the antics of monkeys in the trees and then walked down to the waterfront restaurant to enjoy breakfast while looking at hippos and watching weaver finches build nests over the water.
We will return to Akagera for the wildlife experience, and look forward to seeing the diversity and numbers of wildlife populations continue to increase and thrive. Ruzizi will be at the top of our list of places to stay. It is an amazing experience close to nature and comfortable beyond belief.
Rwanda’s national parks offer three unique experiences, the mountains and gorillas of Volcanoes, thirteen species of primates and an inordinate number of endemic bird species at Nyungwe, and savannah and wetlands wildlife at Akagera. Rwanda is definitely worth a visit for anyone who loves African wildlife, so we’re putting together a safari to all three of its national parks for later this year or early next year (with an extension to Serengeti for those who need lions and cheetahs). If you have an interest in supporting the efforts of this small, often overlooked country in developing its tourism capacity, consider joining us when we have the details worked out. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
– Tim Merriman
P.S. Our Akigera Photo Album is posted at http://www.facebook.com/HeartfeltAssociates.