In 1934, the Belgium government’s conservation programme created a national park in north eastern Rwanda called "Le Parc National d’ Akagera". 80 years later, we celebrate Akagera National Park for being one of three important areas of conservation in Rwanda.

At the end of the First World War, Belgium accepted the League of Nation’s Mandate of 1916 to govern Rwanda as the territory Ruanda-Urundi, along with its existing Congo colony to the west. In 1934, at the time Akagera was founded, Ruanda and Urundi were two separate states headed by Mwami, or King, Mutara III. Belgium’s leaders supported Mutara III’s rule through the appointment of Belgian territorial administrators. This guardianship divided Rwanda into 10 administrative territories.

In 1925, under leadership of King Albert I, Belgium created one of the first national parks in Africa, known as Albert National Park, the park included all the volcanoes that make up a branch of the Albertine Rift Mountains, and the low land surrounding river basins. This land is still protected today, but it is broken up into three separate national parks located in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 1934, the Belgium Government’s conservation program created a new national park in northeastern Rwanda called Le Parc National d’ Akagera. The north eastern territory of Rwanda was virtually uninhabited except for a few pastoralists who only occupied parts of the grassland, avoiding the woodland because of the tsetse flies that would decimate their domestic livestock herds. In addition to the pastoralists the Hima Nyambo tribe lived on the eastern side of the Akagera riverbank. The western side remained uninhabited due to the thick papyrus marshes that covered the lake edges.

The creation of the park was formalised by the visit of Prince Leopold and Princess Astrid of Belgium. Rene Verhulst, who was the administrator of the Gabiro territory, which included the natural area of Akagera, became responsible for the park’s management and became the first curator of the park.

The Prince Leopold and Princess Astrid of Belgium leaving the house of Rene Vulhurst in Gabiro, in the north of the park. Their visit formalised the creation of Akagera National Park in 1934.

The Institute of National Parks in Belgium was focused solely on preserving the natural area for scientific purposes. A rich and diverse wildlife thrived in the park, but a strict policy prevented tourists from visiting the area, no changes to the landscape were allowed, and no traces were to be left behind by scientific teams. To avoid conflict with local communities that had long been settled on the park boundaries, "buffer zones” were implemented wherein certain human activities were allowed.

Rene Verhulst worked in the park until 1948, and was succeeded by several conservationists until the independence of Rwanda in 1962. One conservationist introduced six black rhinoceros into the park in 1958, an initiative that was allowed because of their earlier presence in the area.

In 1962, when Rwanda became independent, the management of national parks and wildlife reserves were taken over by the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture, Water, and Forestry. The Rwandan ministry struggled to maintain Akagera to the same standards of previous Belgium managers. The department faced several challenges including the lack of trained personnel, insufficient equipment, and an inadequate budget. As a result, human encroachment threatened its borders and poaching decimated wildlife. The Rwandan Government subsequently decided to amend its approach to Akagera and opened the park to tourism in order to generate some form of revenue. Offerings included the establishment of a hunting estate in the Mutara region that, it was hoped, would generate a substantial increase in revenue to help offset protection and management costs.

In 1969, as the task of park management became increasingly overwhelming, efforts were made to reach out for additional support. Francis Verhulst, the son of the first park manager, Rene Verhulst, was employed by the Belgium government to take over the management and organisation of the park. The Belgium government recognized the importance of the parks to the future of Rwanda and agreed to help set up a tourism and conservation project.

At the same time the work of Dian Fossey in Volcanoes National Park began to attract international conservation and media attention, which increased the excitement and support for promoting Rwanda’s tourism and wildlife. Experts in science, tourism, conservation and construction collaborated to establish an organisation called the Rwandan Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) and worked together to support Rwanda’s protected land. The new management team implemented a range of initiatives including the training of guides to enhance the tourism experience, hiring of motivated guards to reduce poaching and implement anti-poaching patrols. Management constructed a headquarters base, a luxury hotel was built overlooking Lake Ihema and the guesthouse at Gabiro underwent renovations. Akagera park limits were also marked in order to better understand its borders; and a policy exchange and surrender of land previously encroached on by local communities was enforced in order to effect a more concrete boundary to the park.

In 1969, the rescue of an injured elephant resulted in significant awareness of the central southern region of Rwanda called the Bugesera region. At the time, there was a herd of some 150 elephants, broken up into five or six main groups, continually coming into conflict with local communities. The Government’s solution was to attempt to relocate as many elephants as possible into Akagera National Park. There were no elephants in Akagera at the time, but because they were known to have previously existed in the eastern region, the reintroduction was deemed to be scientifically viable. At this time the understanding of how to translocate large animals through densely populated areas was unknown.

The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), as well as the Rwandan and Belgium Governments eventually financed the relocation operation. Ian Douglas Hamilton and other translocation experts advised on the removal and capture of some young adults. Once the decision was made to translocate the young elephants ORTPN staff mobilized quickly, using the resources they had on hand. Support from the military provided much needed equipment such as trucks, helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, cages, and strong boats capable of carrying two elephants at a time. The year 1975 was a landmark one for Akagera – that is when 26 small elephants were successfully translocated. Four of the 26 were not yet weaned from their mother and were monitored more carefully and bottle-fed. Three of the four were given names: Mutware was a male, and the two females were called Mwiza and Chiquita. Chiquita, the smallest of the human-weaned elephants escaped the enclosure on the first night and was never seen again. The other two continued to be human-fed for more than a year and were gradually introduced into the wilds. Mutware still lives in the park today, is semi-domesticated and is well-known to many Rwandans.

The years 1970 to 1975 are considered a period of opulence for the fauna of Akagera as thousands of buffalo, zebra, topi and impala flourished in the savanna. Thirty crocodiles were captured in the populated parts of the Nyabarongo River and released onto the banks of Lake Mihindi. During this time, the lion population was estimated to be between 250 and 300. In the late 1970’s, however, Akagera and the whole of Africa were subject to massive poaching. The main species targeted were the rhinos, elephants and gorillas and in Akagera, the rhino population was almost completely wiped out. They were very rarely seen again and last confirmed rhino sighting in Akagera was in 2007.

In 1978, a team of filmmakers, led by brothers Gerard and Guy Vienne, chose Akagera National Park to shoot a series of wildlife films with focus on the lives of nocturnal big cats. A book "Akagera” (written in French) was published about their experiences.

In early 1986, the introduction of six Masai giraffe, a gift from the Kenyan Government, was completed successfully. Today there are around 60 giraffes in Akagera’s savannah.

The conservation and tourism projects funded by Belgium ended in 1986 but were extended through a project funded by WWF. A new project focused entirely on scientific aspect of the park and many serious conservation problems were ignored. This included high levels of poaching and shortages in tourism revenue. While the park struggled in some ways during WWF’s management period, a beautiful book was produced during this period called "Akagera: Water, Grass, and Fire” by JP Vande Weghe.

In 1997, the park was downsized by two thirds due to land pressure from returning refugees after the Rwandan genocide. Despite its reduction in size it still boasts an impressive biodiversity.

In 2009, another significant period in Akagera’s history began when African Parks entered into a 20-year management agreement with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to manage the park and created the Akagera Management Company (AMC). The AMC is the entity responsible for the day-to-day management of the park. Several achievements have been made in the past four years including the construction of a western boundary fence to prevent human/wildlife conflict and, as a result, plans to reintroduce black rhinos and lions are underway. Roads and existing structures have been maintained and tourism is on the increase with a more than 70% rise in visitors recorded over the past four years. A new lodge, Ruzizi Tented Lodge, was constructed as well as a visitor centre. Law enforcement is a priority for the new management, who are also responsible for creating a constituency for conservation among the surrounding communities and enabling Akagera to achieve self-sustainability in the long-term. Akagera has a long and bright future ahead and more positive developments are expected to be added to its rich and extensive history.

This was produced using extracts from an email written by Hubert Velhurst, son of Rene Velhurst, first curator of Akagera National Park. Hubert Velhurst also supplied us with many of the historical photographs.