The making of an African game park: behind the scenes

The opportunity to witness nature in its purest form is both humbling and engaging. Visiting an African game park involves some bumpy and dusty driving, but one is rewarded with majestic wild life including giraffe, hippos, lions, zebra, antelopes, elephants, birds and so much more.  (https://www.instagram.com/p/BtWUGCXnOy8/ for more photos) I’ve done this in several locations, with visits to the big parks across Kenya and Tanzania and two camping safaris in Botswana, but until visiting this small park on the border of eastern Rwanda I had never appreciated the effort and management that goes into maintaining a game park. After our first day of driving throughout Akagera National Park with a local guide, we made our way to the park headquarters for their “behind the scenes” tour and spent time hearing from Sara, the tourism manager.

It was fascinating to hear about the business and complexity of running a game park. African Parks is a non-profit conservation organization that partners with governments where they need support to manage and maintain national parks. Although Akagera National Park is the 3rd oldest national park in Africa, founded in 1934, it has had a challenging history due to the post-genocide era when refugees returned and settled in the area to live and farm with about 40,000 head of cattle. In 1997, the park was reduced in size to a third of its original allocation to provide land for the refugees but protect a portion of the park. The organization African Parks took over in late 2009 with a twenty-year contract to have complete management responsibility for the park. They manage 14 pa rks across 9 countries including Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Central African Republic, Chad, and Mozambique.

It takes 250 employees to manage and maintain Akagera, and all but two are locals. With a goal to rebuild the park’s diversity and tourism, they have reintroduced 7 lions in 2015 and 16 rhinos in 2016. This now allows them to market as a “Big Five” park which means lion, leopard, rhino, elephants, and Cape buffalo, although they are not always easy to find! The rhinos required a major investment and an ongoing team of 5-7, including trackers that go out every day on foot to locate and identify them in the thick brush. The park headquarters has an operations center with sophisticated GPS tracking systems for many of the lions, elephants and rhinos. We saw some of the tracking collars for lion and elephant, which were enormous! Rhinos cannot be collared so their tracking devices are put into the horns, but since the horn continuously regrows, it has to be replaced over time.

Early on, a big part of the challenge was to combat poaching. The fenced in compound at the headquarters contained hundreds of confiscated snares, bicycles, and motorbikes from those caught in the park illegally. Often it was not just the trophy that people were looking for, but also the meat. A hippo might have been poached in the park, then smoked onsite, cut into pieces and carried out to be sold in the local markets. Today the number of animals found poached has gone down 99% since management began and the number of snares recovered was down to six in 2017 (compared to almost 2000 in 2013).

The company does a ton of work to engage with the local community, recognizing that this is paramount to their success. All of the guides for hire are from the local community and have gone through extensive training. There are annual activities like the Lion Run and the Rhino Bike Ride to engage locals, as well as free educational visits for 1300 local schoolchildren, and education about beekeeping to provide a sustainable honey-farming income for locals.

Fortunately for the park revenues, tourism has tripled since 2010 up to 44,000 visitors a year, yet it still remains almost empty from a crowd perspective that you might see elsewhere. Although Akagera is still redeveloping, I am grateful to have been able to support this rebuilding institution. It was easy to book all the guides, entry fees, boat rides, and permits myself without having a fully guided tour. We booked the sunset boat ride which was excellent for birdlife, and during the day drove our own vehicles through the park. And last but not least, the Ruzizi Tented Lodge with its permanent tents, stunning views, and great service was an excellent place to spend three nights!

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