Akagera’s Ambitious Plan to Become a Big Five Safari Park

· @laureneveritt ·

In June 2015, Akagera National Park welcomed seven lions from South Africa — the first to roam the park in 15 years. The lions are now thriving, and three cubs, born earlier this year, delighted audiences worldwide in photos posted on the park’s Facebook page. The lions brought with them a surge of interest and tourism. Since the introduction of the predators, the park has seen a 40% increase in domestic tourism and a 23% increase in overall park visitors.

But for African Parks, the nonprofit that jointly manages Akagera with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the lions are just the first stage in a series of improvements to position Akagera as a self-sustaining Big Five safari park.

Akagera’s tourism and marketing manager, Sarah Hall, says a Big Five park will be a major boon for the country’s tourism industry. “Rwanda would then be a complete package. With the golden monkeys, the gorillas, and Lake Kivu, it’s pretty close already. With Akagera being so easily accessible and close to Kigali, why wouldn’t people come?”

Bringing the rhinos back

The park currently boasts four of the Big Five (lions, elephants, buffalo, and leopards); it’s missing the rhino. The Big Five draw in tourists keen to tick off sightings of Africa’s most storied animals. This year, if all goes as planned, the park will bring in black rhinos to complete the quintet. African Parks has already started construction on the bomas where the rhinos will stay for their first month in the park, and the organization is scouting a source rhino population, according to Hall. “There are still a lot of logistics and red tape to work through,” she says. “But we’re aiming for the end of this year.”

“Rwanda would then be a complete package. With the golden monkeys, the gorillas, and Lake Kivu, it’s pretty close already.”

The park’s last black rhino was spotted in 1997, nearly 10 years ago. While Hall can’t unequivocally pin their extinction in the park on poaching, she acknowledges that it’s a potential culprit. “It’s really hard to say,” she says. “But poaching was rife at that time, and there was no boundary fence, and law enforcement wasn’t up to the standard they are today.”

A resurgence

Since African Parks partnered with RDB in 2010, the number of park visitors has more than doubled, from 15,000 in 2010 to 32,000 last year. While many tourists make the day trip from Kigali, on-site accommodations offer another potential tourism draw. The opening of Ruzizi Tented Lodge in November 2012 provided the park’s first luxury accommodations. Now, the park is hoping to attract even more visitors with a five-star lodge on Akagera’s northern edge. African Parks is currently working on finding a hotel management company to run and develop the lodge.

The path to sustainability

The ultimate aim of these improvements is make Akagera self sustainable. Last year, the park’s revenue totaled US$1.2 million to meet a US$2.2 million budget — a US$1 million shortfall. Donor money from a variety of private and government sources filled the gap. But Hall says the park’s long-term goal is to wean itself off of donor funds and rely solely on revenue. The addition of new animals and a five-star property will no doubt help in reaching that goal.

Hall is optimistic that the park can increase tourism revenues in Rwanda as a whole too. The tourism industry is the country’s largest foreign exchange earner, pulling in some US$318 million in revenue last year. A Big Five park is expected to boost those numbers by attracting tourists who previously traveled to neighboring countries for the full safari experience.

Beyond its financial impact, Hall says the park plays an important role in the preservation of African wildlife, particularly elephants and lions — and soon the black rhino. African Parks also educates the surrounding communities on the importance of conservation, she says. Some of those community members likely remember a time when the park teemed with wildlife. Hall hopes to return the park to its former glory. “Ecologically speaking, it would be great for the park to have all those animals it once had back again,” she says.

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