A Quiet Renaissance

Featured image: Morning in Akagera.

By Isaac Wilks

Our battle-tested Land Cruiser glided rhythmically across the savanna, coaxing Daud and I awake. We had slept through most of the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kigali to Rwanda’s far east, thanks to our hired Jeep’s suspension creating an undulating, pillowy buffer between us and the crags of the ochre-dirt roads. A few days ago, these same roads had taken us nearly five hours to traverse in a juddering minibus that took the bumps like a wild bull, its trunk flying open as the aluminum chassis pitched and dove.

Like all mid-autumn Rwandan sunrises, dawn had come slowly and without fanfare, soaking the sky with a soft grey-blue light. Yellowish grasses spread around us, enveloping the gentle slopes of the hill crowned by the game trail. Far off the hill to our right, a silvery smudge of a lake glimmered beneath the silhouetted ridges of western Tanzania. The plains ahead beckoned with the prospect of safari. Through the fog of sleep deprivation, I did my best to rein in my default shell of self-aware cynicism and fell hard into Lion King romanticism.

Akagera National Park was established by the colonial Belgian government in 1934, and at one time covered nearly a thousand square miles of Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania. The park thrived for much of the 20th century, with the introduction of black rhinos from Tanzania in 1957 leading to a population of around fifty rhinos by the 1970s. In 1986, Masai giraffes were introduced from Kenya and thereafter increased healthily in number. What’s more, by 1990, the park boasted nearly 300 lions.

However, the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi brought the park close to obliteration, like nearly everything in Rwanda. Lawlessness and the chaotic upheaval of masses of people spelled near-total destruction for Akagera. The return of thousands of refugees to the country in 1997 forced the government to nearly halve the size of the park, allocating the land for resettlement and livestock grazing. The intentional poisoning of cattle carcasses by farmers led to the total extinction of the park’s wild dog population. The entire lion population was poached to death in a few years’ time, and the rhinos met a similar fate, with the last sighting reported in 2007. By 2009, the Rwandan government concluded that they had around two years to act before the iminent onset of total ecosystem destruction.

But again, like nearly everything in Rwanda, the park’s recent history charts a course of conscientious, purposeful hope. That same year, the government and the African Parks Network hammered out a joint-management scheme for the park, which was up and running by 2010. Millions of dollars began to pour into the distressed park, which translated into electric fencing, a surveillance helicopter, and crack wildlife tracking and anti-poaching security teams that brought Akagera back from the brink. The new management took stock of the remaining large mammals—4,000 in number—and got to work. In 2015, seven lions were reintroduced, who today number over 20, and in 2017, twenty black rhinos were reintroduced. By 2018, the large mammal population had swelled to nearly 14,000.

Today, the park serves as the economic lifeblood of far eastern Rwanda, with annual visits skyrocketing from around 8,000 in 2010 to 44,000 in 2018. Per government mandate, 30% of the park’s annual net revenue of $1.7 million was redistributed to residents of peripheral areas, a commitment to avoiding the adversarial local resentment and poaching problems that plague much of Africa’s protected natural areas.

Predictably, our safari did not disappoint. The next seven hours took us over ridges, through swamps, and across plains, chasing herds of zebra, loping giraffes, and querulous groups of baboons. As a tried-and-true tourist package, everything functioned as planned, the land bearing no visible trace of its destructive history. The human mind cannot comprehend tragedy on an inhuman scale. Just as one cannot comprehend the demonic absurdity of the genocide’s million deaths while walking the fragrant boulevards of Kigali, one cannot imagine death in a landscape so tightly composed of life. When Nuuru, our guide, mentioned that even just two years ago he had driven through the park and encountered only two zebras, I gazed out over the plain studded with zigs and zags of black and white and drew a mental blank. It simply didn’t add up. But Rwanda doesn’t need to add up. It was right there before my eyes, whether I could grasp it or not.

Isaac Wilks is a sophomore in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at isaac.wilks@yale.edu.