Rwanda's wildlife a short drive away

Akagera National Park was ravaged like the rest of the country during the 1994 genocide, but it survived the catastrophe and is now populated with the Big Five animals to draw tourists

KIGALI • 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.

Right around this time of year, to the east of Rwanda's borders, in Tanzania and Kenya, big packs of tourists are stumbling over one another to get the perfect photo of a scene like this.

They are driving through protected areas like Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve in caravans of Land Rovers, each packed so tightly that people's binocular straps get tangled up.

It makes sense: The animal migrations that occur in this part of the world during these months are rightly considered by many to be the greatest natural show on earth.

Despite the modest tourism numbers - 37,000 visitors last year, 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 one another and more than 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 ravaged.

In 1997, as the country rebuilt, 50 per cent 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 1,120 sq km, turning the page on the park's history.

It is one of many initiatives that African Parks, a non-profit conservation non-governmental organisation supported by Britain's 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 channelling the profit, once the tourists start coming 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 is a realistic approach in countries where poverty is a bigger concern than bird counts.

"Akagera's conservation story is similar to Rwanda's story," said Ms Sarah Hall, Akagera's tourism and marketing manager.

"This is a story about rehabilitation and reconciliation."

The biggest draw of Akagera, though, might be a major new milestone the park recently hit.

Today, it is one of a select number of parks with the Big Five: lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, elephants and rhinoceros.

Though that term comes from hunting culture, it is now the crowning achievement of many safari going tourists.

Lions were reintroduced to Akagera in 2015 and, last year, the introduction of 18 critically endangered eastern black rhinos - rhinos shipped up from South Africa by African Parks - granted the once-ravaged Akagera that new Big Five designation.

But the thing that might bring the most tourists is not the night drive, the bush camp or even the Big Five.

Rather, it is the fact that Akagera is only a 2.5-hour drive from Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

Visitors will not need to hire a driver with a four-wheel drive, they will not need to buy a plane ticket for a puddle-hopper and there is not even much of a need to book a hotel room if they do not want to. Akagera could be a long day trip.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 14, 2018, with the headline 'Rwanda's wildlife a short drive away'. Print Edition | Subscribe