SUZANNE MORPHET explores the burgeoning national parks of a resurgent African nation
The grunts and snorts from outside my tent are unmistakeably from a barnyard.
Except there’s no barn or farm anywhere in sight.
I’m camped on a wooden platform on the edge of a crocodile-infested lake in one of the oldest national parks in Africa.
Even if I was brave enough to unzip the flap of my tent to investigate — and I’m not — it’s too dark to see anything. Besides, I know what’s out there and it’s not pigs.
Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda has more than 800 hippos, one of the biggest concentrations in Africa.
Rwanda is known mostly for its mountain gorillas, but as I’m discovering on a road trip to every corner of this country, the nation that overcame a genocide 25 years ago is now poised to become Africa’s next great safari destination.
“The only other place that I know of with the great apes and Big Five is Uganda, but it’s very commercial,” says Hein Myers, my guide here at Magashi Camp.
Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris opened Magashi in May with just six luxury tents and exclusive rights to a part of the park where wildlife is abundant. Operating more than 40 camps in seven African countries, the company’s recent investment in Akagera is helping drive Rwanda as a high-end ecotourism destination.
Given this park’s history though, it’s remarkable it has survived at all. Poaching, government neglect and encroachment by refugees returning after the genocide devastated the land and the wildlife. Lions and rhinos were both hunted to extinction.
In an attempt to save something, the government reduced the park’s size by two-thirds in 1997.
More recently, a new focus on law enforcement has given Akagera a second chance. A helicopter, rhino trackers and highly trained dogs have cut poaching to an all-time low. In 2015, it was safe enough to introduce seven lions from South Africa and a couple of years later, 18 Eastern black rhinos. This past May five more rhinos were translocated, this time from European zoos, where they were born. “We’re trying to rewild them,” explains Hein, when we watch from a deliberate distance the five new arrivals explore their temporary enclosure near Magashi camp.
“They’ve never seen or smelled Africa until they came here.”
The next morning Hein and I have Lake Rwanyakazinga all to ourselves. We slowly cruise the grassy shoreline in a small aluminium boat, binoculars in one hand, camera in the other. Last night’s hippos are now submerged, only their small eyes and tiny pink ears protruding above the water.
This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.
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