Rwanda's war nearly destroyed this park. Now it's coming back.

Akagera National Park was badly degraded by poachers and settlers, but thanks to an innovative conservation effort it is now home again to the Big Five and a growing tourism business.

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This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society and the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which seek to inspire the protection of 30 percent of the planet by 2030.

Samuel Munyaneza pointed out the window of the sports utility vehicle, toward a group of a dozen young Rwandan tourists giggling and taking selfies. Behind them, a pod of hippos lazed in the water of a shallow lake. A crocodile sunbathed near a muddy shoreline.

History permeates nearly every aspect of Rwandan life. With Munyaneza, it’s no exception. When he was three years old, during the height of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, his family was attacked by extremists. He survived, but his parents were killed, and it took him years to recover from his injuries.

“Every citizen has a tough story. When we see Rwandans laughing, talking to each other, it is a miracle,” he said.

Akagera National Park may be something of a miracle these days. Like the country that hosts it, it has a violent past. Poachers and settlers had put so much pressure on it that many of its iconic animals, from lions to rhinos, disappeared in a few short years, leaving it a shell of itself. In that way, the park is like a microcosm for broad warnings issued by the United Nations this week about the potential unraveling of nature at the hands of man, including the possible extinction of up to a million species.

But in 2009, the Rwandan government called in a new nonprofit partner and launched an ambitious conservation program to rehab Akagera. Lions and the rest of the famed “Big Five” animals soon returned. Today, Cape eland, warthogs, impala, giraffes, and zebras can be seen grazing in nearly every direction. Tourism is increasing. Conservationists have hailed the park’s transformation, and some hope it can serve as a model for what can happen when nature is encouraged to come back.

“Rwanda didn’t know what they had here,” said Jes Gruner, the park’s manager. “It’s a little gem.”

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Former battleground

Akagera National Park headquarters sits on a wide, tree-covered hilltop overlooking Lake Ihema and a strip of swamps that straddles the border of Tanzania. The park was first established in 1934, making it one of Africa’s oldest national parks.

Between 1990 and 1994, Akagera became a battleground between the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel army mostly composed of Tutsi exiles. Much of the area was a no-go zone for civilians. A major army base was located in Gabiro, on the edge of the park, and RPF soldiers staged some of the fiercest battles in the area, according to accounts by former RPF soldiers.

Weaver birds nest along a lake in the park.

“The situation to visit the park in those years was disastrous,” said Sylvestre Ndirunkundiye, a 51-year-old former soldier who now oversees Akagera’s anti-poaching programs.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, little was done to protect wildlife. Most of the Rwandan staff, researchers, or conservations working in parks had either "left the country or been killed" according to this 1998 study in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

The new government, led by the victorious RPF, prioritized the resettlement of ethnic Tutsi who had previously lived in exile. Rwanda was and remains a densely populated country, and with little availability of arable land, the government allowed returnees and their estimated 700,000 cattle to settle in Akagera, as well as in an adjacent area formerly known as the Mutara Game Reserve. The returnees converged on the area, putting a big strain on the park’s delicate ecosystem.

In a move to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife, returnees were allowed to remain, but in 1997, the size of Akagera National Park was reduced by two-thirds from 1,080 square miles (2,800 square kilometers) to 430 square miles (1,120 square kilometers). So a park that used to be three and a half times bigger than New York City was reduced to a size smaller than Phoenix. It was one of the largest reductions in the size of a conservation area in modern African history.

But the park’s problems didn’t end there. Local residents and park officials who worked in Akagera during that time say elephants spent less time inside the new park than outside, where they roamed their historic feeding grounds and feasted on new crops. Setting up conflict, a single elephant can destroy up to a year's worth of a farmer's income in one night. Ungulates like impala, topi, zebra, buffalos, and warthogs continued to graze in the same areas as livestock, competing for food.

Buffalo and lions posed a serious threat to cattle and humans alike. Loss of even a single cow can mean severe economic pain in the surrounding communities, and many responded by hunting or poisoning the park’s wildlife until some species were eradicated altogether. Lions, which numbered more than 300 before the 1990s, were gone by 2002. Poachers continued to infiltrate the park boundaries to pull thousands of pounds of fish out of the area’s several lakes every night. The last black rhino was seen there in 2007.

By 2010, “the park was disappearing,” said Ian Munyankindi, a former guide and currently the park’s hospitality manager. “It was having a huge problem on the conservation side. Poaching was a very big issue. And there were many conflicts with the local people.”

New management

Faced with a make-or-break moment and a nature reserve that was increasingly becoming a park on paper only, in 2009, the Rwandan government shifted directions. They signed a 20-year contract with African Parks, a Johannesburg-based non-profit that operates by taking over complete responsibility for the rehabilitation and management of conservation zones. African Parks, along with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), a Rwandan government agency, created the Akagera Management Company, a joint for-profit business to oversee the park’s rehabilitation. (Other parks managed by African Parks include Garamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liwonde in Malawi, and Zakouma in Chad.)

Gruner arrived as the park’s new manager in 2010. The 40-year-old Malawi-born biologist with Swiss and Danish nationality said by then, the park infrastructure had suffered years of neglect. The only game lodge was in disrepair. Electricity and water services to park offices were unreliable.

“It was bad at the beginning. There was nothing here,” Gruner said about his first days on the job.

Rwanda competes for tourism cash with its East African neighbors, where other parks like Masai Mara are strong draws. Akagera, in the east of the country, is relatively small—Serengeti National Park, across the border in Tanzania, is bigger than the entire country of Rwanda. A decade ago, the Rwandan government logically focused on gorilla conservation in Volcanoes National Parknow a popular tourist draw—and in the development of Nyungwe Forest, which was established in 2005.

But Akagera’s new management saw potential.

Akagera’s topography is diverse, from open savanna in the north, to rolling hills of forest in the south, and wetlands that provide ample habitat for birds and hippos. It’s also only a three-hour drive from the capital, Kigali, making it relatively easy to access for tourists. (Learn how Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park has been turned around after war.)

Fighting poachers

At park headquarters, Gruner unlatched a metal door and walked into a small enclosure surrounded by an electrified fence. Stepping past rotted dugout canoes, rusted bicycles, and stacks of machetes, he pointed to a pile of poachers' snares that had been collected from the park. They were made of electric cable that had been spun into makeshift nooses, with the rubber insulation burned off.

Such snares are often indiscriminate: They can kill animals as small as a young leopard or as big as a fully grown elephant. They are frequently set to catch a wide range of wild animals, for the so-called bushmeat trade, and they're a major threat to wildlife in parks around the world, especially where human populations are rising and poor people struggle to afford other sources of protein.

“These are really easy—cheap to buy, cheap to make, robust, can be set for years,” Gruner said. “In 2013 we pulled out over 2,000 of these. That was the climax of the poaching.”

To stem both poaching and human-wildlife conflict, park officials conducted regular helicopter drives to herd ungulates from adjacent fields back into the park. In 2013, officials installed a 75-mile (120-kilometer) solar electrified fence, creating a hard boundary between villages and the park.

“Fencing is controversial, and it's not the best conservation practice, but in the worst scenarios, it's the best option to take,” said Eugene Mutangana, the former manager of the park and currently the head of Conservation at RDB. “It's a choice of accepting to lose everything, or at least saving something.”

Management also established and professionalized anti-poaching systems. That meant retiring older rangers, training others in modern anti-poaching systems—such as using the latest animal tracking technology—and creating a canine team to help find poachers and detect snares. Rangers are also given training in target practice and weapons handling, close combat, and intelligence gathering.

Rebirth of the “magnificent”

Over the past nine years, these policies have borne fruit.

Near the parks’ northernmost border, on a wide-open expanse called the Muhana Plain, a riot of wildlife can be seen grazing in every direction, from Cape eland to zebras. In many cases, wildlife densities are now back to what they were prior to the political turmoil of the 1990s. With some ungulates, populations may have already reached the park’s carrying capacity. In 2010, there were only about 600 buffalo and a similar number of hippos within the park. Since installing the fence, both species have multiplied to more than 3,000.

With the help of zoos and conservation zones in Africa and Europe, wildlife that was previously eradicated is now being reintroduced. Phinda Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park, both in South Africa, donated seven lions in 2015. They have now multiplied to around 25. In 2017, 18 black rhinos were brought and five more are expected this year. Today, Akagera is one of a select number of parks in Africa with the Big Five: leopards, lions, Cape buffalo, elephants, and rhinoceros.

Tourist numbers are also starting to rise. Only 15,000 visited the park in 2010. Last year, that number had jumped to 44,000, bringing in $2.2 million in tourism revenue. The park isn’t financially sustainable yet, and African Parks continues to pump money into it, including contributions from the RDB and philanthropic donations from the Walton Family Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and Wyss Foundation. (The latter has partnered with the National Geographic Society on the Campaign for Nature, an effort to protect 30 percent of the planet by 2030.)

As a trade-off to villagers who were forced off the land, and to encourage them to respect wildlife, five percent of tourism revenue is invested in health centers, schools, and other infrastructure nearby.

“We have to offer the best alternative… which is conservation in general that gives back through tourism and other ecosystem services,” says Mutangana, of RDB. He says the goal is to focus on “low volume, high value” tourism that seeks to balance local community needs with the needs of conservation and tourism.

An estimated 500 species of birds inhabit Akagera. Many of them are visible on Lake Ihema, in the southern section of the park. On a sunset boat ride, a plump of white-faced whistling ducks ruffled their feathers on the shore, just feet from a resting crocodile. Behind them, a lonely waterbuck hid in the shade of an acacia tree, near a regal grey crowned crane that pecked at the grass for bugs. As the boat passed a small island, an African fish eagle was seen nested near a cacophonous gathering of cormorants.

As Munyaneza, the guide, steered the metal boat through papyrus swamps, he recited facts about African wildlife—elephants eat up to 300 kilos (660 pounds) of grass a day; hippos can hold their breath for five minutes or longer—to a group of four European tourists.

The park’s size feels manageable, and it’s possible to visit it in just a day or two. Because it's relatively unknown, tourists often find themselves free to enjoy wildlife in relative solitude. That’s precisely why some come here.

“In Kenya, you see more cars and tourists compared to animals. But here, you’re all alone,” said Asma Ayari, a French engineer who was visiting the park with her husband. “Frankly, it’s magnificent.”

Munyaneza is now 28. After the genocide, he was adopted and raised by his uncle in Kayonza, a poor district on the border of the park, where people grow maize and raise cattle. A decade ago, he said, relations between the villagers and the park weren't easy. Wildlife often roamed into his neighborhood—one of his neighbors was attacked by a Cape buffalo—and villagers hunted wildlife for food, or poisoned them to protect crops.

Now things are different, and the park and neighboring communities have begun a new chapter, he said. After graduating from university, Munyaneza joined a local cooperative of freelance tour guides who are mostly pulled from neighboring villages. They help both Rwandan and international tourists understand the area’s history and wildlife.

“We’ve been destroying this park for a long time,” he said, when asked why he became a guide. “If we played a part to destroy the park, I would play a part to build a new park.”

Benedict Moran is an independent journalist and filmmaker who covers the environment, human rights, justice, and humanitarian emergencies. He has traveled and worked in more than 80 countries. Video by Jorgen Samso.

Correction: Eugene Mutangana's name has been corrected, as has the spelling of Gabiro.