Akagera National Park is Central Africa’s largest protected wetland, the last remaining refuge for savannah-adapted species in Rwanda, and the country’s only Big Five Park. Its rolling highlands, vast plains, and swamp-fringed lakes contain incredible biodiversity and rare species like the shoebill stork. In total, Akagera’s breath-taking landscapes houses thousands of large mammals and over 480 bird species, but the park wasn’t always a wildlife haven. After the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Akagera shrunk in size when large portions were converted to farmland for refugees returning home. For years, high population density and human encroachment pressured natural resources, but ongoing efforts to restore animal populations, increase law enforcement, and create park boundaries have breathed new life into Akagera. Since implementing rigorous law enforcement in 2010, poaching has been reduced, wildlife has prospered, and the tourism industry has been transformed, which in turn creates local employment opportunities. This life-giving revenue stream not only strengthens ties with surrounding communities but also ensures the very survival of the park— and its wildlife.
Following lion and rhino reintroductions, Akagera officially became a ‘Big Five’ park in May 2017. It now boasts lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, as well as zebra, giraffe, and hundreds of birds species. Wildlife populations are thriving due to effective law enforcement and successful conflict-mitigation with surrounding communities; and poaching within the park has reached an all-time low.
Predators: Before the reintroduction of lions, the park’s only large predators included leopards and spotted hyenas. A founder population of seven lions was reintroduced in 2015 after being hunted out in the 1990s. Two additional males were translocated to the park in 2017 to increase genetic diversity and the park’s lion population has since tripled in size. Small predators are also abundant: serval, side-striped jackal, and several mongoose and viverrid species are thriving.
Primates: Of the primate family, olive baboons and vervet monkeys are common sights in Akagera. Far rarer is the secretive blue monkey that, until a few years ago, was believed to be extinct in Akagera.
Herbivores: Elephant, rhino, giraffe, and hippopotamus are the largest mammals found in the park. They join several naturally-occurring large plains game species, including buffalo, topi, zebra, defassa waterbuck, the secretive roan antelope, and the statuesque eland. Smaller herbivores include duiker, oribi, bohor reedbuck, klipspringer, bushbuck, and impala.
Over 400 bird species have been documented in the park. Akagera is an important ornithological site, with rarities such as the shoebill and papyrus gonolek – both restricted to papyrus swamps – as well as the localised red-faced barbet and the swamp flycatcher.
The endangered Masai giraffe was introduced to Akagera from Kenya in 1986, and the current population contains an estimated 60 individuals.
Elephants have always naturally occurred in Akagera, but poaching wiped them out until an initial reintroduction returned a young group of 26 individuals—all under the age of eight—in 1975. The founder population has since grown to roughly 100 individuals.
2017 saw the historic return of 18 Eastern black rhinoceros to Akagera—and Rwanda—after a 10-year absence. The first calves were born in 2018, and five black rhinos translocated from European zoos in June 2019 promise to boost genetic diversity.
Every two years, park staff conduct an aerial census to monitor wildlife populations. Likewise, several elephants, lions and rhinos have been fitted with GPS collars and tracking devices as part of a long-term monitoring initiative to track their movements and ensure their survival while learning about habitat-use. Rangers also conduct monthly road counts to gain a clearer understanding of animal densities and distributions. The most recent count, done in 2019, recorded a total of 13,500 animals, up from 12,000 counted in 2017.
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