Despite modest tourism numbers, Akagera National Park is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.
A velvet monkey and her baby in Akagera National Park. The Rwandan park is a success story, despite modest tourism numbers. Credit Ben Curtis/Associated Press
The road through Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda was blocked. Two giraffes had positioned themselves smack in the middle of the dirt road and were rubbing their necks together. In the car, with a driver and a guide, my cell service was long gone; there was nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda’s borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over each other to get the perfect photo of a scene like this. They’re driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that peoples’ binocular straps get tangled up. It makes sense: the animal migrations that occur in this part of the world these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth.
But in Akagera, an eight-hour day in the park concluded without the sighting of another tourist. I did, though, see those necking giraffes, as well as plenty of snorting rhinos, brilliantly hued birds and lumbering elephants.
Despite the modest tourism numbers — 37,000 visitors in 2017, up from 15,000 visitors in 2010 — Akagera is a success story in the making, particularly considering that, like its host country, it survived catastrophe.
When most people think of Rwanda, they still think of the genocide, and even out here in the park, it casts a long shadow. In 1994, when Rwandans turned on each other and more than a half a million people were killed, many fled the violence and ended up within the confines of Akagera National Park, at that time a 60-year-old park. Once in the park, people started hunting animals for food and commerce, and amid the frightening chaos, there was no park management to stop them. Like the rest of the country, the park was decimated.
In 1997, as the country rebuilt, 50 percent of the park’s land was granted to the refugees, so that they could begin their lives again. Then, in 2009, the Rwanda Development Board and African Parks signed a joint agreement establishing a management company for the remaining 433 square miles of the park, turning the page on the park’s history.
It’s one of many initiatives that African Parks, a nonprofit conservation NGO supported by Prince Harry, has expanded across the continent. African Parks takes over management of floundering protected areas in partnership with countries including Malawi, Chad and the Central African Republic, offering seed money for infrastructure, and then sending the profit once the tourists start arriving back into the management of the park. For some, the model problematically passes the buck away from the local government that should be investing in the park area; for others, it’s a realistic approach in countries where poverty is a bigger concern than bird counts…