By Gilbert Mwijuke
With over 10 fresh water lakes, numerous hills, fantastic large mammal sightings, boat safaris, night drives and decent campsites, Akagera National Park is undoubtedly one of Africa’s top safari destinations for 2016.
Last year, management of the park reintroduced the iconic lions, conducted another aerial census that indicated an increase in residents, and also launched the Karenge Seasonal Bush Camp.
In addition, the park management plans to reintroduce the black rhino some time this year, which will make Rwanda’s biggest national park a Big Five destination.
Located in eastern Rwanda on the border with Tanzania, Akagera National Park is now teeming with wildlife following a spectacular recovery from the 1994 genocide that decimated its wildlife populations. Highlights include elephants, hippos, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, leopards, hyenas, lions, crocodiles…the list is endless.
However, even though game viewing can sometimes feel sparse in this sprawling 112,000-hectare national park, you can always count on the beautiful panorama to keep your attention between animal and bird sightings.
On my most recent visit, I travelled with a group of 15 or so travel journalists from the East African region and beyond.
Our starting point was the Ruzizi Lodge, located on the shores of Lake Ihema, Rwanda’s second-largest lake after Kivu in the west. Owned by African Parks, the management of the park, Ruzizi is completely casual with a couple of artistically built cottages overlooking the water, a well-stocked bar, and an elegant central area where meals are served.
From Ruzizi Lodge we took a boat ride to have a glimpse of elephants, hippos, crocodiles and numerous bird species that usually hover around the shores of Lake Ihema.
As we navigated the lake, the hippos ducked into the waters as soon as they saw our boat approaching, the single crocodile we saw ignored our presence, while the lone elephant we went close to simply looked at us with wide-eyed wonder.
On Lake Ihema we also came across some unique bird species such as the snake eagles, fish eagles, egrets and the black-headed gonoleks, among others. In fact, talking of birds, Akagera National Park offers more value for birding enthusiasts, considering that the park is home to more than 500 bird species, according to African Parks’ records.
For easy wildlife viewing we headed towards the northern part of the park, a two-hour drive from the shores of Lake Ihema. Even though it’s not such a long distance, it took us two hours to get there because, according to Akagera National Park’s rules, visitors must “stick to the speed limit… Drive no faster than 40 kilometres per hour.”
Animals like to hang around the northern side because this part of the park is a vast, open plain. “They feel secure in flatland where they can have a clear view of everything around them,” said Innocent Ndagijimana, our guide.
As we drove towards the north, we got the opportunity to see baboons, monkeys, waterbucks and warthogs along the way. Ndagijimana gave us some commentary on the warthog. Named after the wart-like protrusions on their heads, the warthog is the most forgetful animal in the jungle, he told us.
“When something scares them, they immediately begin to run but within 10 seconds they’ll have forgotten that something had scared them in the first place so they’ll stop running and turn their attention to something else,” Ndagijimana said.
There are thousands of zebras, topis and impalas in the park, which makes them the easiest animals to view. You will see at least one of these animal species everywhere you turn.
Also hard to miss are the masai giraffes, which number more than 100 animals, according to Ndagijimana. The giraffe, we were told, had been extinct in the Akagera National park in the 1970s but was reintroduced in 1986, thanks to a donation by the Kenyan government.
“Six giraffes were imported from Kenya in 1986 and their population has now grown to more than 100 individuals,” Ndagijimana told us.
To see the buffaloes, we headed towards the shores of Lake Rwanyakazinga, the second-largest in the park after Ihema. Like the elephant we had seen earlier, the five buffaloes we found here just stared at us as if they were in a trance. Despite being such a dreadful sight, buffaloes are peaceful animals if you don’t pursue them aggressively, Ndagijimana told us.
Our trip ended in a futile search of lions, which were reintroduced to the Akagara National Park last year. Because they are still only seven in the entire park, Ndagijimana told us that one needs at least three days in the sprawling park to better his or her chances of seeing the king of the jungle. The other famous beasts that proved elusive during our tour were the leopards and hyenas.