Rwanda: the return of the king

Conservationists in Rwanda are reintroducing lions, wiped out after the genocide, to it’s biggest park.
Photo by Matthew Douglas

Kigali, Rwanda– In a bid to restore the ecosystem and increase tourism revenues by marketing the East African country as Africa’s top tourist destination, the Rwandan government decided to reintroduce lions to it’s largest park.

In 2015 five females and two males for a total of seven lions were reintroduced to Akagera National Park from South Africa.

In 2017 two more males were added. Over the last three years, 15 cubs were born and the park has actually a population of 22 lions.

Conservation Conversation

During the fourth conversation on conservation conference in Kigali, Claire Akamanzi, Chief Executive Officer of Rwanda Development Board said that the country aims to double tourism revenues from 438 million US dollars in 2017 to 800 millions by 2024.

In order to become a global leading tourists destination, Rwanda has recently unveiled a three-year partnership with Arsenal football team to increase tourism, investment and football development.

Arsenal’s Chief Commercial Officer, Vinai Venkatesham, said in a press release:” This is an exciting partnership which will see Arsenal support Rwanda’s ambition to build its tourism industry”.

The “Visit Rwanda” logo is actually featured on the left sleeve of all Arsenal teams. As one of the most viewed teams around the world, Arsenal shirt is globally seen 35 million times a day, said the Rwanda Development  Board’s press release.

How did the lions disappear?

Before the 1994 genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda, more than 300 lions were living inside the park, filled with woodland, swamps, low mountains and savannah.

In the aftermath of the genocide and conflicts that ravaged Rwanda in the 90’s, lions inside the park became extinct around the year 2000 – 2001.

During a live presentation at Green Drinks Kigali, an event that attracts people interested in sustainability and environment,  Joseph Karama, community manager for Akagera National Park, told the audience the fate of the extinct lions.

After the genocide, “lions were in fact victims of human settlements” says Karama to WIB, “ as more Rwandans were returning home from exile in Uganda and Tanzania with more than 40,000 cattle and were in need of a place to settle”, explained Karama.

Authorities had no other place to settle the returning refugees with their cattle and were obliged to settle them on a portion of the Akagera National Park. As a consequence, the park was reduced by two thirds.

The presence of human settlements and their cattle in the vicinities of the park inevitably led to a conflict between lions, that wanted an easy meal, and the communities who owned cattle.

The communities resolved to kill lions by putting poison on cow carcasses, which lions were eating at their peril. Within six years, lions were wiped out of the park.

“We are studying how lions may potentially affect prey behaviour, how the change in prey behaviour may lead to changes in the ecosystem”

For more than 15 years since 2000, lions were extinct inside Akagera National park’s ecosystem.

Will reintroducing lions be positive for the ecosystem?

Drew Bantlin argues that lions are crucial for a well-balanced ecosystem inside the park. The PhD student at the University of Wisconsin is currently conducting a research to find out whether lion’s reintroduction to Akagera National park will benefit its ecosystem.

“We are studying how lions may potentially affect prey behaviour, how the change in prey behaviour may lead to changes in the ecosystem” says Bantlin.

Lions play an important role in the park food chain as they help to regulate the number of the more dominant herbivores species like zebra and buffalo, he continued.

In the absence of lions to control them, these species can out-compete other animals causing their extinction and reducing the park’s biodiversity as a result.

“If we reach a point where there are so many lions and they are so effective at hunting prey or contributing in the reduction of birth rates of prey animals through the idea of the ecology of fear, lions could potentially have a negative effect on those other species”, notes  Bantlin.

Another risk that the park’s management might run into is lions trying to leave the park in case the population is so big and the park run out of lands.

Involving the communities

The conflict between lions and humans that occurred post-genocide, was solved through an awareness campaign for neighbouring communities, and an electric fence, that keeps humans and wildlife separated.

“We had to explain the communities that lions would establish the natural balance of the park’s ecosystem and boost tourism revenues that would at the end of the day benefit the surrounding communities”, said Mr Joseph Karama.  

The population of the “king of the jungle” inside the park could potentially hit 50 over the next two to three years according to Bantlin.

To avoid risks of unbalancing the park’s ecosystem, the management has set an ideal population of 50 lions.

Bantlin points out that the management has to be smart about keeping track of the animals born into the population, how the genetic and sex ratio look alike.

“It is going to be critical going forward because we will be trying to remove very specific animals that will help us to manage to our ideal population number of 50 lions”, he concludes.

In case the population increases beyond the ideal 50 lions, the park management intends to move them to other African parks in need of lions, zoological societies or the park can find some sort of trade where it can, for instance, send its males lions to another park and get the females lions in return.   

Even though Rwanda’s Akagera National will probably never go back to its former size and be able to host 300 lions again, there is a hope that the East African country will at least be able to maintain the ideal and sustainable population of 50, and incentivise tourism as well as re-establish the park’s ecosystem.

Daniel Nzohabonimana

Daniel Nzohabonimana is the director at Gisabo Media in Rwanda. He has a diploma in internet journalism and freelance journalism respectively from London School of Journalism and Writer's bureau. Last but not least, Daniel has a certificate in the art and technique of documentary filmmaking delivered by Kwetu Film Institute in partnership with Europäisches Filmzentrum Babelsberg e.
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