What Overthrew the King of the Jungle from the Akagera ‘Throne’?
When Charlene Jendry, an American conservationist, first Rwanda tour to Akagera National Park in Rwanda in 1990, Lions were the prime tourist attractions there. While staying at Gabiro Guest House, a magnificent safari lodge right in the middle of the jungle, Jendry enjoyed a spectacular African safari before flying back to the USA.
On her return in 1995, Jendry received an image far different from the Akagera she had left 5 years back. Things seemed to have been a mess with nearly no single lion sighted in day’s game drives. The big cats’ number had greatly diminished and very few were remaining but were also very elusive. By the end of 2000, lions in Akagera Game Park had become more of a myth or legend than a reality.
What went wrong?
Following the massive return of the Tutsi refugees after the restoration of peace in the country after the 1994 genocide that had seen many leave the country for their lives, there wasn’t enough land to accommodate the large families of pastoral Tutsi which increased demand for land that fueled conflicts between the park authorities and the local community, as the community started encroaching on the park land for agriculture.
As the land for cultivation and rearing cattle failed to sustain the increasing numbers of people and livestock, the government was forced to cut off a huge chunk of Akagera national park and give it to farmers and herders. This limited the wild animals’ range and increased the conflicts between man and them as they were often hunted down for trespassing on the farm land as well as killing them for food.
Being the kings of the jungle and not willing to give up their freedom and territory, Lions fought back, attacking livestock and people which provoked cattle keepers to poison the carcasses which these lions could eat and die hence decimating their numbers until they lived no more.
By the year 2000, these lions were no more which frustrated tourists and reduced Rwanda from a game destination to primate / gorilla destination hence reducing on the visitor duration in the country. Rwanda considered importing lions from South Africa, but the efforts proved futile. In 2010 the government installed a 1.8 high electric fence on a 110-kilometer area of Akagera park, worth Rwf $2.7 billion ($4 million).
However, with the disappearance of these big cats, the grazer population sprouted immensely with several species of antelopes as well as buffalos and elephants roaming in the savanna plains of Akagera.
This year, Kenya came to an agreement with Rwanda to give them a pride of 8 lions though amidst criticism from some conservation bodies demanding Rwanda’s explanation about the extinction of their indigenous lions and prove their commitment to protect them this time. It is not yet clear about when the lions are finding their way to Rwanda and when the Akagera’s glory will be fully restored.
Meanwhile, Akagera Park Manager, Gruner assured the public that once the lions arrive, they will be kept in a boomer for monitoring before being released into the wild with a GPS tracking collar. “The park should be able to know the location of every lion all the time,” says Gruner.
He is also confident that once the lions are back, they will not be lost again since the park is now well secured with an electric fence strong enough to keep the lions with in the park and limit their conflicts with the herders. A study conducted also proved that the lions will survive in Akagera’s savanna terrain.