​Expert Reviews – Akagera NP

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Expert
Stephen Cunliffe   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: June and July

Stephen is a travel writer and avid conservationist whose work appears in prestigious magazines such as Africa Geographic and Travel Africa.

2 people found this review helpful.

Wilderness reborn
Overall rating
4/5

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.

Expert
Ariadne van Zandbergen   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: Multiple times

Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.

Rwanda’s Scenic Savannah
Overall rating
4/5

We have visited Akagera several times between 2000 and 2022, and it is heart-warming to see how this park has made a comeback from total neglect. The turning point was in 2010 when the non-profit African Parks took over its management. After fencing, they reintroduced lots of animals, most notably lion in 2015 and black rhino in 2017. Today, Akagera is once again a Big Five destination. Furthermore, in 2021, 30 white rhinos were brought in (this is the largest single rhino translocation ever).

Since the park is now free of poaching, wildlife densities are increasing, and animals are less skittish. On our most recent visit, we managed to see all of the Big Five during a five-night stay. We saw white rhino from afar, and a curious black rhino walked straight past our vehicle. Leopards are regularly seen on night drives, but while on a boat trip we spotted one sitting in a tree. As is always the case on safari, you never know what you’ll see where. The Big Five aside, we saw zebras, giraffes, waterbuck, oribis and big herds of topi. The fabulous setting for all this is a labyrinth of papyrus-fringed lakes with a backdrop of rolling hills. Stunning! You’ll really appreciate the park’s scenic beauty on a boat trip. On the water, we saw lots of crocodiles and hippos, and the birdlife is phenomenal. There is even a chance of seeing shoebill.

Aside from the relatively large Akagera Game Lodge near the entrance, several tented camps deeper in the park offer more of a bush experience. Magashi Camp in the northeastern corner of the park operates on a private concession, and a stay here is on a par with what you can expect in the top private game reserves in southern Africa. We found the game viewing overall more rewarding in the north of the park. So, if you are staying in the south, it is worth taking a packed lunch and heading north for a full-day game drive.

Expert
Sue Watt   –  
United Kingdom UK
Visited: Multiple times

Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.

Rwanda’s safari secret
Overall rating
4/5

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.

Expert
Philip Briggs   –  
South Africa ZA
Visited: Multiple times

Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

A resurgent gem
Overall rating
4/5

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.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.0/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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