Mammals of Akagera National Park

Impala, zebras, topi, and waterbuck share this savanna scene in Akagera National Park

The next park we visited on the Rwanda Study Tour after Nyungwe was Akagera National Park. Although the park was created in 1934, it’s only been run by a partnership between the Rwandan government and an NGO called African Parks—which helps manage about fifteen parks on the continent—since 2010. At this point, a change in operation style and protection started to help wildlife bounce back as well as increase visitation to the park. Back in 2010, the park hosted around fifteen thousand visitors per year and only made about $200,000 (while losing money), but last year the park received thirty-six thousand visitors and made $2,000,000 (getting out of the red for the first time).

A zebra gives itself a dustbath while a impala, two topi, and a warthog watch on

This improvement is partly because of the reintroductions African Parks has helped coordinate for certain wildlife that is attractive, but also an increased popularity that Akagera has enjoyed among Rwanda’s growing middle class.

Warthogs will often feed while folding their front legs under them to be closer to the ground, which makes it tough to get a good look at their faces

In 2015, seven lions were introduced to the park from elsewhere in Africa (I forget if it was Kenya or Botswana), and there are now twenty-three. In 1975, six elephants were brought from Bugesera in Rwanda, and I believe there are now over a hundred in the park—we came across a group of twenty-seven one day!

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I can’t recall exactly how many rhinoceros have been introduced, but there are somewhere between a dozen and twenty very-hard-to-see southern black rhinos in Akagera. In addition, there’s leopards, which thankfully have never been extirpated from the park, but which of course are fairly rare to spot, many types of antelope (I feature all the ones we were lucky to see below), and other mammals that I photographed over course of three days we spent in the park. I learned later during my time in Rwanda at the Museum of the Environment in the town of Kibuye that cheetahs used to be found in Akagera, so I wonder if they will eventually be reintroduced. One species that was never originally in Rwanda’s savannas, however, is the giraffe. While now they are a charismatic attraction in Akagera, they were originally a gift from the president of Kenya to the government of Rwanda some decades ago, and the population has grown very successfully in the park since then.

A lone giraffe with the park border—which is delineated by an electric fence—and a rural town in the background

Despite the fact that they are nonnative, the giraffes really are fun to watch if, like me, you haven’t seen them outside a zoo before. Even more entertaining and beautiful, however, were the zebras, which are far more special than I’d realized. We enjoyed the way they will rest their heads on each other’s backs, and of course delighted in observing the famous variation in their stripes up close.  Of all the mammals in the park these were probably the most common to see, especially close to the roads, and this was not a problem at all for us—quite the contrary.

A Rorschach-like pattern on the back of a grazing zebra

The next most common mammal in Akagera is easily the impala, whose horns have quite a graceful curve to them (only the males grow these), as you can see in the photo I’ve included to the right. Impala were usually in big groups of more than twenty individuals, sometimes separated by gender and constantly on the watch for predators. All antelopes in the savanna will engage in this latter behavior, and we were lucky to see a bunch of other species as well, like the rich, dark brown topi (which apparently translates to “mud” in Swahili), the small bushbuck and pretty large waterbuck, and massive eland and tiny oribi.

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If you’re near one of the several lakes in the park, you’re also practically guaranteed to see a hippopotamus, notoriously responsible for the most human deaths in Africa by a wild mammal. They mostly roam out on land at night to patrol their territory, and during the day stay cool in the water, not far from Nile crocodiles and many wading birds (which are for another post).

Although we never saw them near water, water buffalo are another giant mammal that would be risky to encounter while out on foot at night. Since these are not the most attractive animals, I have included a slightly fanciful silhouette shot at dusk below instead of an identifying photo.

Vervet monkeys

I don’t know how many types of primate are in Akagera, but the two species that we saw were olive baboons and vervet monkeys, also found in Nyungwe National Park, though we were fortunate to see more youngsters here than in the forest.

While I mentioned lions and leopards earlier, we didn’t get the chance to see any, though we did drive past some cat prints in the dirt one day. Apart from Nile crocodiles and several species of raptor (hawks, eagles, and falcons), the only predator we got lucky enough to see was a lone spotted hyena.

One juvenile olive baboon grooms another

Overall I found Akagera National Park to be a wonderful spot to go on a classic-style safari, with very few people to trail behind on dusty roads—I think we only ever saw four or five other cars—even though we visited on a weekend, and at the beginning of the height of tourism season.

Unidentified cat prints next to an ungulate’s hoof-marks in the road

Although I haven’t been to any of the other eastern or southern African countries with this type of savanna ecosystem, Akagera seems to offer much of the same type of wildlife but with fewer crowds, and also greater proximity to radically different national parks like Nyungwe’s jungle to the west or Volcanoes’ alpine forest to the north. I’ll share more about the park in a future post, but as you can see, the wealth of wildlife here was impressive, and I definitely recommend a visit!

Spotted hyena

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