Akagera is the only savannah protected area of Rwanda and a must-visit for big 5 Rwanda safaris and boat cruise experience. The park is one of Rwanda’s most successful conservation initiatives with the Big 5 mammals including lions and black and white rhinos that were brought back after extinction in 2009. Situated on the eastern border of Rwanda with Tanzania, Akagera is 164 km (2-hour drive) east of Kigali capital city. It was established in 1934, and named after Akagera river which flows through the eastern edge and forms a large wetland containing 10 freshwater papyrus swamp lakes including Lake Ihema the largest, along with Lake Shakani known for spot fishing and Lake Rwanyakizinga in the south. The elevation of Akagera ranges from 1,286m (4,219 ft) to 1,718m (5,636 ft) above sea level. The northern part of the park is characterized by a variety of habitats including rolling hills, open acacia savanna, riparian woodlands and dense dry bushes which harbor rich biodiversity including buffaloes, hippos, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, 8 antelope species and over 480 species of birds including Lake Victoria basin endemics such as blue-breasted bee-eaters.
The park’s area once extended for 2,500 sq.km and contained rich biodiversity including African painted dogs and over 200 lions. However, the park’s biodiversity was largely affected during the Rwandan civil war in 1994. Many refugees settled there and carried out poaching and encroachment and the area of the park was reduced to 1,200 sq.km. As a result, wildlife populations dwindled including extinction of wild dogs, lions and rhinos. To address these challenges, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) entered into a long-term renewable partnership with the African Parks Network (APN) in 2009. “The non-profit conservation organization’s purpose is to take on direct responsibility for rehabilitation and long-term management of protected areas across the continent in partnership with governments and local communities.” Since 2010, the Akagera management company has made significant progress by restoring the ecosystem that supports all other species and nearby communities. Among the Big 5 animals, RDB shipped 30 white rhinos which came from South Africa, making the largest rhino translocation. Travelers come to Akagera for wildlife viewing, thus tourism is therefore important to ensure that the park becomes self-sustaining through revenue collection. Today, Akagera offers a big five wildlife viewing experience and a wide range of accommodations.
Attractions in Akagera National Park
Lake Victoria basin endemic birds
Akagera national park is home to over 480 species of birds of which 183 are intra-african and palearctic migrants including lesser striped swallow, stonechat, Wahlberg’s eagle, and Abdim’s stork. Migratory species are present in the park between November and April. In addition, there are tropical lowland savanna grassland species such as Ruaha chat, Red-faced barbet (Lybius rubrifacies), yellow throated leaf-love, short-tailed pipit, crested and double toothed barbets. The park’s extensive papyrus wetlands provide habitat to some of the Lake Victoria Basin Endemics including Marsh sandpiper, papyrus gonolek (Laniarius mufumbiri), blue breasted bee-eaters, northern brown throated weaver, slender billed weaver, and papyrus yellow warbler. The Shoebill stork is present on Lake Ihema but rare to spot. Common water species include marsh tchagra, caspian plover, white-winged swamp warbler, marsh owl, lesser jacanas and dimorphic egrets. Akagera is also home to several large and medium-sized birds of prey including martial and booted eagles, grasshopper buzzard, sooty and Amur falcons.
Big 5 Mammals
Akagera is famous for harboring the Big Five mammals including lions, black and white rhinos, leopards, elephants and buffaloes. Besides, there are zebras, Maasai giraffes, warthogs and over 8 antelope species are found in Akagera National Park including impalas, elands, reedbuck, topi, kobs, klipspringers, kobs, sitatunga and waterbucks. Since 2010 the African Parks effective law enforcement and habitat restoration efforts have led to an increase in wildlife populations. A survey conducted in 2021 found that the monitored population of lions had grown from 17 to 37 lions in Akagera national park and elephants also grew by 20% from less than 30 to 133. There are over 4,000 buffaloes. There are also several small African wild cat species such as side striped jackals and African civets. Primate species of African savanna are also found in Akagera including velvet monkeys, olive baboons, and red-tailed monkeys.
Akagera National Park activities
Akagera National Park offers a wide range of activities including night game drives, boat cruise, spot fishing, birding, community walks and cultural encounters. Visitors are reminded to observe park rules and regulations to avoid a fine of $150.
Day game drives
Akagera offers game drives and boat cruises and combining both gives you opportunities to watch large animals in the African bush and aquatic wildlife on the lakes and swamps. Day game drives leave from any place of stay early in the morning and last for 3-5 hours depending on the wildlife to look out for. It’s advisable to take a break in the wild where it’s safe to get out of the car and wait for the next activity. This is especially for those intending to do the afternoon boat cruise excursion without having to return to the lodge for lunch break. The best time for game viewing is in June to September and December to February. There are higher chances to spot big 5 as well as zebras, giraffes, hippos, roan antelope, elands, warthogs, hyenas and lots of birds. Game drives in Akagera require 4×4 vehicles given that the dirt roads can be challenging. Driving off track isn’t allowed and attracts a fine of $150.
Akagera offers a wide range of boat trips including scheduled morning, afternoon and evening sunset cruises and private non-scheduled trips. All cruises are done on Lake Ihema and offer the opportunity to spot hippos, Nile crocodiles, and water bird species. The scheduled morning boat trip cost is $35 per person for adults and $20 for children aged 6-12 years. It starts at 7:30 – and ends at 8:30 am. Each trip can take a maximum number of 11 people. The evening sunset boat cruise starts at 4:00 pm to 6:45 depending on sunset time and the cost is $45 and $30 respectively. The most popular afternoon boat cruise begins at 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm.
Night game drives
Night drives in Akagera national park are done using the park’s specialized 7-seater vehicle and begin at the African Park’s visitor centre between 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm. Visitors must obtain authorization and be accompanied by armed rangers who use spotlights to look for nocturnal wild animals that are active at night including lions and hyenas, owls, civets, genets, nightjars and porcupines. The private boat trip departs any time of the day and costs $180 per person for a maximum of 11 people.
Akagera National Park is home to over 480 species of birds including the endangered shoebill stork and papyrus gonolek. The park offers opportunities to spot Lake Victoria basin endemics such as white-winged swamp warbler, papyrus canary, northern brown throated weaver, carruther’s cisticola and the red-faced barbet. In order to get more out of the birding tour in Akagera, you need to select particular activities and accommodations. For instance, Magashi camp is located on the banks of Lake Rwanyakazinga and often visited by aquatic wildlife species especially water birds including miombo wren-warbler, African fish eagle, crested barbet and brown chested lapwings. A pair of binoculars is a must-have gear to scan the surrounding forests for Bennet’s woodpecker, Souza’s shrike, Ruaha chat, and long-tailed cisticola.
Spot fishing in Akagera national park is done on Lake Shakani, home to several fish species including Nile Tilapia, the main fish caught for sport. Spot fishing permit cost is $25 for adults and $15 for children aged 6-12 years available for booking through a tour operator or RDB. Visitors should bring their own equipment or rent one at additional cost.
Local people formerly depended on the park resources for livelihood but tourism nowadays provides an alternative income. Travelers can be part of this positive change for Akagera national park. Community walks take visitors into the villages outside the park which often involves hiring local tour guides or supporting local businesses. You can also participate in Rwandan cultural experiences including witnessing the Inyambo long horn cows milking and banana beer brewing activity. Besides, you may stay at the park owned Karenge bush camps.
Learn about the conservation story of Akagera national park with the behind-the-scenes-tour available at the park headquarters. You’ll meet and interact with professional wildlife rangers for 1 and a half hours taking you through the park management strategies. The experience cost is $25 per person for 4 visitors and $180 for a group of 8 people.
Walk the line
Akagera park boundary fence stretches for 120 km and was built to control human-wildlife conflicts. Walk the line tour takes visitors along the fence for 7 km (2-hour walk) and cost is $30 per person for a maximum of 3 people.
How to get there
Akagera National Park is 164 km (2-hour drive) east of Kigali capital city with a straight tarmac road stopping in Kayonza town, which is 27 km away from the park entrance gate. The park can also be accessible by air through Akagera Aviation helicopter flights.
Akagera offers a wide range of accommodations including budget camping, medium and luxury tented camps and lodges. Camping in the park cost $25 per person per night for adults and $15 for children aged between 6 to 12 years.