The sun has barely risen and the convoy of dusty Safari vehicles is already caught in a morning traffic jam. A small pride of young lions led by two lionesses casually saunter down the dirt road ahead of the motorcade, completely indifferent to the enraptured safari goers and the applauding sound of their camera shutters. In other parks across the country, Rwanda’s famed mountain gorillas are just starting their day in a similarly leisurely fashion.

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What are you looking at? Safari goers watch on as a family of giraffes asks the same.

Akagera National Park

But for the lions, this is just the beginning of a normal day in Akagera National Park, a sprawling 433 square mile wildlife sanctuary on the northeast side of Rwanda, just a two-hour drive from the capital of Kigali. Today, the national park is proudly one of few nature reserves in Africa where travelers can spot the famous Big Five: leopards, lions, Cape Buffalo, elephants, and rhinoceros. But it wasn’t always this way.

GREATEST WILDLIFE ADVENTURE ON THE PLANET

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A baby lion finding its feet.

The national park’s violent history of poaching and human-wildlife conflict during the 90s and noughties meant many of its most iconic animals had disappeared. Thankfully, the Rwandan Government recognized the significant cultural and natural heritage of the area and, in 2010, it established a partnership with the not-for-profit African Parks to co-manage Akagera.

“That partnership is responsible for not only improving management of the park, but recovering wildlife like rhinos and lions,” says Eugene Mutangana, Conservation Management Expert of Rwanda Development Board. “Akagera National Park now generates more than US$2.5 million annually (pre-COVID) from nature-based tourism and employs close to 300 people, nearly all of them Rwandan.”

The park has become a zebra-striped engine for the local and national economy, with ten percent of tourism revenue earmarked for investment back into the community by way of new infrastructures like roads, schools, and health facilities. It has also allowed local entrepreneurs to blossom, with beekeeping, fish farming, and cultural crafts enjoying a boon from increased tourist visitation.

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Leopards are among the most difficult animals to spot.

Gishwati-Mukura National Park

As one of the earliest conservation success stories for Rwanda, Akagera National Park encapsulates the country’s ongoing commitment to becoming a leader in sustainable nature and community-based tourism in Africa. It now serves as a blueprint for Rwanda’s other sustainable tourism initiatives.

One of those is Gishwati-Mukura National Park, a biosphere reserve comprising two separate forests (named Gishwati and Mukura) that sit along the Albertine Rift in Rwanda’s west, four hours from Kigali. Hidden among the dense trees are chimpanzees, golden monkeys, blue monkeys and nearly 400 species of birds.

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There are nearly 400 species of birds in the park.

The national park has suffered a significant reduction in forest cover since the 1970s because of human settlement, livestock farming, and illegal mining in the mineral-rich forest. Since 2019, the park has been the focus of an ambitious reforestation project – with nearly six square miles of land restored with new trees, according to data from the Rwanda Development Board. A partnership between the national park, Wilderness Safaris, and the Forest of Hope Association has led to a nursery being built just outside the park, which houses over 9,000 indigenous trees that will soon be planted in the park. More trees and wildlife mean more opportunities for community-based tourism, with farm stays, tea plantation visits, monkey tracking expeditions, and bird watching safaris – all led by locals – becoming a big drawcard for intrepid travelers to Gishwati-Mukura National Park.

“Community-based tourism appeals to many travelers because it’s a great cultural exchange, and the money goes directly to the locals. This can help address poverty issues in rural areas. It also gives locals an incentive to be interested in conservation,” says Eugene.

THE WILDLIFE WONDERLANDS

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The Mountain Gorilla is one of the most identifiable symbols of Rwanda.

Conservation Heritage – Turambe

Shifting this mindset among rural living Rwandans, who might see encroaching mountain gorillas, elephants or lions as a threat to their livelihood, is key. Encouraging local citizens to see wildlife as a potentially lucrative tourist attraction can help reduce human-wildlife conflict as well as poaching.

Such cultural change can take generations to take effect, but conservationists like Valerie Akuredusenge are already working hard to raise the next cohort of eco-conscious Rwandans. Valerie leads Conservation Heritage – Turambe (CHT), a year-long education program that teaches schoolchildren in communities living near Volcanoes National Park.

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Children in the Conservation Heritage – Turambe program. Education has been identified as paramount in future conservationism.

Hugging the border with Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, the national park is home to endangered mountain gorillas who sometimes leave the park’s boundaries to munch on bamboo grown on neighbouring farmlands. While CHT runs bamboo planting and water delivery programs designed to reduce human interactions with the gorillas, Valerie says it’s important to teach people how to live harmoniously with the great apes.

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Mountain gorillas can live for 35-40 years.

Rwanda’s Revolutionary Plastic Bag Ban

The country has not only led the way on the continent in conservation tourism, but also the impact of the humble plastic bag on their environment. In 2003, Rwanda’s Ministry in charge of the environment conducted a scientific study finding that plastic waste was sprawled across the country, clogging drainage systems, destroying agricultural land, and contributing to increased erosion and floods during the rainy season. By the following year, there were limits on plastic manufacturing, and local businesses were encouraged to produce alternative packaging from biodegradable materials like paper, cotton, and banana leaf. Rwanda now hosts delegations from neighboring nations who are keen to replicate their clean, green success.

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