Touching different districts including Nyagatare, Gatsibo and Kayonza, the park spent approximately 40 years without generating revenues until 1975 when coordinated tourism activities started booming.
It covers a total land area of 1,122 square kilometers but used to cover an area of 2500 square kilometers reduced to about 50% in 1997 when the land was reallocated as a farmland for the returning Rwandans after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.
According to the park’s management, the government of Rwanda reduced the size of the park to 1122 square kilometers in 2009 so as to create room for people and then protect wildlife.
Akagera National park is run and managed by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) together with African Parks, a conservation organization from South Africa.
The park is dominated by swamps, hills, acacia, woodland, grassland vegetation and small lakes and is named after Kagera River which flows along the eastern boundary of Rwanda and feed into Lake Ihema which is the second largest lake in Rwanda.
Travelling across the park along 120-kilometer cleared roads can take between six to seven hours.
With its large part being savannah, the park gives a clear view for tourists to watch far-distant animals.
Distinctive flora and fauna and the presence of the big five animals attracts domestic and foreign tourists to consume in the beauty of the park on regular basis.
1. Booming conservation efforts
Despite expended conservation efforts, the park once seemed extinct due to ineffective management and consequences of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi where activities (poaching) of humans resettled in the park exerted pressure on the harmony of the jungle and culminated into the extinction of some animals while others escaped the park to surrounding areas.
In 1970, Rwanda had some rhinos translocated to the park from Tanzania for the previous 13 years but poaching activities saw them wiped out later.
The park registered between 250 and 300 lion population in 1990 but disappeared in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi as they were hunted and killed by herdsmen protecting their cattle.
The research on Rwanda’s tourism carried out by Dr. Rwanyiziri Gaspard in 2008, indicated that tourism activities in Akagera National Park were dormant in 1998 but increased gradually until 6000 visitors were registered in 2002.
Today, Akagera National Park is among most visited in Rwanda. The park registered 50,000 visitors in 2019 of whom 50% are Rwandans. The number increased from 44,000 of the previous year where it earned Rwf2 billion.
Besides the availability of food which makes the park ecologically ready, conservation efforts have yielded and enabled reestablishment of the park’s equilibrium in the ecosystem with significant increase of animals including herbivores and big carnivores.
Among others, human population has been separated from the wildlife, ensuring the competition for survival between the two communities is lessened.
People who in the past resided in the park have been resettled while the park’s demarcations have been fenced off animals are kept outside human populations.
Also, RDB which oversees Rwanda’s tourism industry in the past introduced a tourism revenue sharing scheme under which 5% of the total revenues from every tourist attraction is given back to surrounding communities through different development projects.
The park is also home to different lakes including Ihema where different animals quench thirst.
2. Most visited park
The research carried out by Dr. Gaspard Rwanyiziri also shows that Akagera registered between 2500 and 3000 visitors in 1990 who decreased gradually due to security problems the country was undergoing until 1994 when the park had no visitors.
Tourism activities resumed in 1995 to 1997 but the number was below 4000.
In 2004, the park recorded over 15,000 visitors.
The report of the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) released in 2020 indicates that the park registered 321,745 visitors; Virunga National Park which is home to gorillas was visited by approximately 308,333 tourists while Nyungwe National Park recorded 93.528 visitors between 2005 and 2017.
3.Home to big five
With ongoing conservation efforts, Akagera National Park is currently home to the big five animals including elephant, rhinos, leopard, buffalo and lion.
These rare wild species have a significant impact to attracting tourists and are probably among major reasons making it the most visited park in Rwanda.
Haya Bajnouj, a tourist from Dubai who spoke to RBA after visiting the park in 2019 said he was had most wonderful moments in Akagera since he started visiting parks.
“Visiting Akagera National Park was the first amazing excursion. I am very excited for the good moments I have had in the park where I saw elephant, zebra, and buffalo among other animals. I also visited gorillas recently but seeing the elephant was the most amazing experience,” he said.
Lions and rhinos among other animals that went extinct were reintroduced to the park through the partnership of Rwanda with other countries.
For instance, 7 lions including five females and two males from South Africa were reintroduced in 2015 after 15 years of extinction through RDB’s partnership with African Parks. More two male lions were later reintroduced in 2017.
In 2020, African parks revealed that lion population quadrupled.
Else, 18 black rhinos from South Africa were reintroduced to Akagera National Park in 2017 following 10 years of extinction. The first calves were born in 2018, and five black rhinos translocated from European zoos (Czech Republic) in June 2019 promise to boost genetic diversity.
Elephants have always naturally occurred in Akagera, but poaching wiped them out until an initial reintroduction returned a young group of 26 individuals all under the age of eight in 1975. The founder population has since grown to roughly 100 individuals.
4. Diverse animal species
Apart from the big five, Akagera National Park is home to over 13,000 mammals and more than 490 bird species.
Following lion and rhino reintroductions, Akagera officially became a “Big Five” park in May 2017. It now boasts thriving populations of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo, as well as zebra, giraffe, and hundreds of bird species.
Before the reintroduction of lions, the park’s only large predators were leopards and spotted hyena. A founder population of seven lions was reintroduced in 2015 after the species was hunted out in the 1990s.
Two additional males were translocated to the park in 2017 to increase genetic diversity and the park’s lion population has since quadrupled in size. Small predators are also abundant: serval, side-striped jackal, and several mongoose and viverrid species are thriving.
Of the primate family, olive baboons and vervet monkeys are common in Akagera.
Far rarer is the secretive blue monkey that, until a few years ago, was believed to be extinct in the park.
Elephant, rhino, giraffe, and hippopotamus are the largest mammals found in the park. They join several naturally occurring large plains game species, including buffalo, topi, zebra, defassa waterbuck, the elusive roan antelope, and the statuesque eland. Smaller herbivores include duiker, oribi, bohor reedbuck, klipspringer, bushbuck, and impala. The endangered Masai giraffe was introduced to Akagera from Kenya in 1986, and the current population contains an estimated 78 individuals.
Over 400 bird species have been documented in the park. Akagera is an important ornithological site, with rarities such as the shoebill and papyrus gonolek, both restricted to papyrus swamps as well as the localised red-faced barbet and the swamp flycatcher. Six vulture species, including the lappet-faced and white-backed, were documented a rare find for the park.
More bird species likely to sight are, fish eagles, Cattle Egret, Hamerkop, Sacred and Hadada Ibis, Augur Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle, and Pied Crow. Black-headed and Viellot’s Black Weavers, Grey-backed Fiscals, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Caruther’s Cisticola.
5. Largest National Park
Created in 1934, Akagera National Park Akagera was initially stretched to 2500 square kilometers (sq km).
In 1997, the park was downsized by two thirds due to land pressure from returning Rwandans after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi. The park currently covers the land area of 1122 sq km but it still boasts an impressive biodiversity despite its reduction in size and remains the largest park in Rwanda followed by Virunga National Park with 160sq km and Nyungwe National Park with 150sq km.
In 2019, the three national parks registered 111,136 visitors.
Akagera National Park’s flora and fauna in pictures