Expert Reviews – Akagera NP

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Rewilded, scenic park, just two hours from Kigali
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In the past few years, Akagera has burst on to the safari scene, first being successfully rewilded with the Big Five and then with its first luxury camp (Magashi) opening in 2019. Considering its relatively short development as a safari destination, I’ve had amazing wildlife viewing there – watching the interactions of a lion pride that stole a leopard’s kill in a tree, actually seeing a leopard (there are several newly-habituated leopards in the north), and spotting over 100 birds (there are nearly 500 in the park). It’s also a stunning area, with rolling hills, placid lakes, thick papyrus swamps and swathes of savannah. All that, just two-to-three hours from Kigali.

Rwanda’s scenic savannah
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I’ve visited Akagera several times and it has improved an incredible amount over that time. Once there was no accommodation at all, but there are now several good lodges to choose from. Wildlife was once scarce and very skittish (in fact, I saw a lot more cattle than wild animals back then), but today wildlife numbers have increased a lot. And although they’re far from tame, animals are relaxing slowly as poaching is being brought under control. However, more impressive than the wildlife numbers is the sheer beauty of the place. A string of lakes and wetlands with a mountainous backdrop is the focal point of the park. My highlight was a boat trip on one of the lakes in search of the charismatic shoebill stork. We didn’t find any, but the general birdlife made the trip more than worthwhile. As Rwanda’s only savannah reserve, the park is a perfect companion to Volcanoes National Park for anybody wanting to extend their visit to Rwanda beyond the gorilla-tracking experience.

Rwanda’s safari secret
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Akagera should be on every traveler’s itinerary in Rwanda, yet it gets surprisingly few international visitors. Even without the wildlife, the beautiful landscapes alone merit a visit – it always reminds me of a cross between England’s Lake District and a mini Serengeti. While the wildlife hasn’t always been abundant, it has improved tremendously over recent years.

The park had a troubled recent history as thousands of returning refugees moved in following the genocide, causing the government to halve the park’s size, allowing the people to stay but protecting the wildlife in the remaining 1120km2. In 2010, the government partnered with conservation organisation African Parks to manage Akagera and the park has flourished. Lions and rhinos were translocated here in 2015 and 2017, making it a Big Five destination, and the Kilala Plains to the north can teem with game. Akagera’s amazingly diverse landscapes – with mountains, lakes, swamps and open savannah – attract around 500 bird species, including the rare shoebill and crested crane. In May, we took a boat trip to Nyirabiyoro Island on Lake Ihema and saw thousands of nesting cormorants, darters and egrets, along with various herons and kingfishers.

Make time in your itinerary to spend a morning or afternoon with the freelance community guides affiliated to the park – they’ll show you local life, from milking Ankola cows and making banana beer to contributing to a local nursery. And you’ll be helping to spread much needed income and benefits from tourism beyond the park gates.

A resurgent gem
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In 2000, Akagera was barely functional, suffering badly from encroachment and poaching, and seemed destined to become one of those forgotten African parks that exist only on maps and in the statute books. The situation deteriorated over the next few years, but was reversed in 2010 when the non-profit African Parks took over the management and set about transforming it by building fences and roads to keep poachers and cattle out, and implementing a reintroduction program that included lion and rhino. Now a fully fledged Big Five reserve, Akagera ranks as one of East Africa’s most underrated safari destinations, offering the opportunity to see a wide variety of antelope at close quarters, along with the likes of lion, buffalo, elephant, giraffe and hippo. It is also a scenic park, set on rolling green hills that lead down to a labyrinth of lakes and papyrus-fringed channels fed by the Kagera River on the border with Tanzania. Aquatic birds are well represented and include the sought-after shoebill and papyrus gonolek; there’s also a large heronry that can be visited by boat. A checklist of almost 500 birds includes Ross’s turaco and the localised red-faced barbet and Souza’s shrike. Akagera is a lovely safari destination, one that perfectly complements the forested habitats protected in Rwanda’s other national parks, and a highly worthwhile add-on to gorilla tracking in the Virungas.

Rwandan Big Five
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Rwanda is best known for its gorillas and, to a lesser extent, chimpanzees, but few people seem to realise that out in the far east of the country there’s also a Big Five savannah park. Way back in the 1980s, Akagera National Park was regarded as one of East Africa’s better savannah parks, but then along came years of violence that culminated in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. During these dark times Akagera was largely left to fend for itself and refugees fleeing violence elsewhere – or returning to the country after the genocide ended – occupied large parts of the park and much of the wildlife was pushed out.

Today, thanks to the efforts of the African Parks organisation and the Rwandan government, Akagera is back in big way. The park has been restocked with wildlife and is now once again home to all the Big Five, and tourist facilities have been massively upgraded (there’s now some superb accommodation options and more top-end camps are on the way). But how does Akagera compare to some of its East African cousins? Well, the park, with its large lakes and fringing green hills, is unquestionably beautiful. It’s also very quiet. When I visited, as far I could tell I was the only tourist in the park. Wildlife-wise it was pretty decent, with lots of hippo, impala, buffalo, topi and a few giraffe. I didn’t get to see any of the park’s elephants, and I was also there before lion and rhino had been reintroduced, but bird life was abundant. I wouldn’t chose to visit Akagera over some of the region’s more famous parks, such as the Masai Mara or Serengeti, but if you have the time and just want to see a different side of Rwanda then Akagera can be a wonderfully rewarding park to visit. Finally, note that there can be lots of tsetse flies here, which have very painful bites and can mar the pleasure of a safari.

Wilderness reborn
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Akagera is the only protected area offering traditional Big Five safaris in Rwanda. It boasts good wildlife opportunities, although not on quite the same scale as other iconic East African parks. Unlike the densely forested protected areas elsewhere in the country, Akagera is a typical savannah park dominated by sprawling grasslands and broken woodland. It is a refuge for elephant, buffalo, giraffe, tsessebe, impala and defassa waterbuck, while large populations of hippo and the elusive sitatunga – a rare aquatic antelope – thrive in the well-watered eastern sector of the reserve.

With the arrival of the African Parks non-profit conservation organisation in 2009 – and the reintroductions of lion in 2015 and 18 East African black rhino in 2017 – Akagera National Park became Rwanda’s only Big Five reserve. The park, with its attractive landscapes and extensive lake system, is also a bird-watcher’s paradise, with a staggering 525 species (including the iconic shoebill and endemic papyrus gonalek) recorded within the varied habitats of this relatively small, but extremely diverse, park.

The wildlife-rich Kilala Plain – with its abundance of grazing and water – is home to the richest biodiversity and largest concentrations of herbivores in all of Akagera, so any Akagera safari should spend significant game drive time exploring this impressive wildlife area. Although quite small by African protected area standards, the 112,200-hectare park protects central Africa’s largest wetland – known as Rwanda’s Lake District – and it’s the last remaining refuge for savannah-adapted species in all of Rwanda.

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