Sunday, March 29, 2020

Akagera National Park

Set at a relatively low altitude on the border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park could scarcely be more different in mood to the breezy cultivated hills that characterise much of Rwanda. Dominated scenically by the labyrinth of swamps and lakes that follow the meandering course of the Akagera River, the most remote source of the Nile, this is an archetypal African savannah landscape of tangled acacia woodland interspersed with open grassland.
Akagera is, above all, big game country! Herds of elephant and buffalo emerge from the woodland to drink at the lakes, while lucky visitors might stumble across a spotted hyena or even a stray lion.
Giraffe and zebra amble through the savannah, and more than a dozen types of antelope inhabit the park, most commonly the handsome chestnut-coated impala, but also the diminutive oribi and secretive bushbuck, as well as the ungainly tsessebe and the world’s largest antelope, the statuesque cape eland.
Camping alongside the picturesque lakes of Akagera is a truly mystical
introduction to the wonders of the African bush. Pods of 50 hippopotami grunt and splutter throughout the day while outsized crocodiles soak up the sun with their vast jaws menacingly agape. Magically, the air is torn apart by the unforgettable high duetting of a pair of fish eagles, asserting their status as the avian monarchs of Africa’s waterways. Lining the lakes are some of the continent’s densest concentrations of water birds, while the connecting marshes are the haunt of the endangered and exquisite papyrus gonolek, and the bizarre shoebill stork – the latter perhaps the most eagerly sought of all African birds.
Akagera National Park covers 1,200 km² in eastern Rwanda, along the Tanzanian border. It was founded in 1934 to protect animals and vegetation in three ecoregions: savannah, mountain and swamp. The park is named for the Kagera River which flows along its eastern boundary feeding into several lakes the largest of which is Lake Ihema. The complex system of lakes and linking papyrus swamps makes up over 1/3 of the park and is the largest protected wetland in central Africa.
Much of the savannah area of the park was settled in the late 1990s by former refugees returning after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. Due to land shortages, in 1997 the western boundary was regazetted and much of the land allocated as farms to returning refugees. The park was reduced in size from over 2,500 km² to its current size. Although much of the best savannah grazing land is now outside the park boundaries, what remains of Akagera is some of the most diverse and scenic landscape in Africa.
In 2009 the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the African Parks Network entered into a 20 year renewable agreement for the joint management of Akagera. The Akagera Management Company was formed in 2010 as the joint management body for Akagera National Park.
Over the next 5 years a US$10 million expenditure is planned for Akagera including the construction of a 120 km western boundary fence and the reintroduction of lion and black rhino.
Safaris to Akagera National Park
Akagera National Park is a comfortable 2-3 hour drive from Kigali and can be visited on a long day trip if you’re short of time. However, although game densities aren’t massively high, it’s an exceptionally pretty park with pleasantly few other visitors, so it’s worth staying a couple of days to explore it.
The only entry to Akagera National Park is via Kiyonza Gate in the south, close to the Park Headquarters and Akagera’s best lodge. (Nyungwe Gate in the north is currently only available to exit the Park).
Akagera safari camps and lodges
At present, there are only two accommodation options in Akagera National Park aside from camping. Ruzizi Tented Lodge opened in 2013 and is close to the main gate to the south. Managed by African Parks, it’s a pretty bush camp on the shores of Lake Ihema. The other option, Akagera Game Lodge, has been ‘under restoration’ for some years and, although it is partially open, it’s of a significantly lower standard.
New camps are planned for the northern sector of Akagera in the near future so contact us for the latest news on these. In the meantime, you should allow a full day in your itinerary if you want to explore the northern plains and return to Ruzizi.
Activities on an Akagera safari
Akagera National Park’s roads have improved significantly since African Parks came on board allowing for varied game drives around plains, hills and lakes. They usually take place in the mornings and afternoons, or will take a full day if venturing to the north, with night drives an option for spotting Akagera’s nocturnal wildlife.
Boat trips along the shores of Lake Ihema, Rwanda’s second largest lake, yield some great aquatic bird sightings and you can even fish on Lake Shakani.
Unusually, African Parks offers the opportunity to get a feel for the management of a national park on behind-the-scenes tours to their HQ and to meet the staff. Interestingly, because Rwanda is particularly strong on gender equality, Akagera National Park has many female guides, a rare breed on most African safaris.
Wildlife of Akagera National Park
Akagera’s wildlife has increased significantly over recent years and the latest count estimated that the Park is now home to some 8,000 large animals. The new perimeter fence completed in late 2013 should also impact positively on numbers.
Plans are afoot to reintroduce lions and possibly rhinos, making Akagera National Park a “big five” destination once again. In the meantime, because of the lack of predators, game is surprisingly relaxed and relatively easy to spot – as long as you don’t expect massive numbers, an Akagera safari won’t disappoint.
Animals currently found in Akagera
The game on an Akagera safari includes most of the usual plains species. Impala and topi (known as tsessebe in Southern Africa) seem to be dominant, with eland, oribi, Masai giraffe, Defassa waterbuck, reedbuck, bushbuck, sable and roan antelope also present. Burchall’s zebra, hippo and crocodile are commonly seen whilst game viewing; buffalo are more prevalent in the north as are elephants, although more restricted.
One elephant in particular is well-known across Rwanda, having been semi-habituated when younger. Mutware is the grumpy old man of Akagera – at 50 years old, he can be calm but can also be anti-social and your guide is likely to change direction should you encounter him on a drive.
Birds of Akagera National Park
Akagera National Park is especially good for birding, with over 480 species attracted by its diverse habitat. Savannah birds and raptors are prevalent and several endemic species such as the red-faced barbet are often seen.
Short boat trips are available on Akagera’s lakes which will give you the opportunity to get close to the plentiful waterbirds including numerous African fish eagles, marabou stork, crowned cranes, open-billed stork, cormorants, herons and egrets. If you are lucky you may even get to see the elusive shoebill stork.