Visiting Akagera National Park, Rwanda
By Chris Austria
My first visit to Akagera National Park in Rwanda was November, 2014. My friend offered to drive me to the park, which is located along the border of Tanzania, approximately 120 km east of the capital, Kigali. The Rwanda Development Board, and the non-profit African Parks jointly manage Akagera. As we drove through the park, I was amazed how dense the bush in Akagera is with it’s extensive broad-leafed woodland. The vegetation is also quite varied here with areas of tangled acacia woodland, and beautiful vast savannah plains of grassland. It struck me how different Akagera is from the breezy green rolling hills that characterize much of Rwanda.
This national park is named after the Akagera River, the most remote source of the Nile, located along the park’s eastern border. There are extensive wetlands in the eastern section of the park, and 12 lakes connected by papyrus swamps fed by the Akagera river. I was impressed with the wide diversity of habitats and topography found within a relatively small area. As we were driving, the landscapes seemed to change every few minutes. The scenery in Akagera is absolutely stunning, and it’s one of the most beautiful national parks that I have visited in East Africa. Akagera is surrounded with beautiful forest-fringed lakes in the east and tall mountains in the west. This extensive biodiversity combined with the abundant wildlife makes Akagera a photographer’s paradise.
I was surprised that we did not see many other vehicles or visitors which made our experience here very serene. Within 15 minutes of entering the park, we saw topi, Defassa bushbuck, African wart hog, olive baboons, and zebra. The wildlife here is accustomed to visitors, so they seemed relatively undisturbed by our presence. This gave me the opportunity to take a lot of photos of the wildlife at a reasonable distance without them fleeing. I loved viewing the herds of impalas, which are commonly seen. They are a type of antelope, similar to gazelles except from a different family. In Akagera, there are a dozen species of antelopes, and it seemed that around every corner, we saw herds of these graceful animals.
Before moving to Africa, I took care of animals at zoos, and wildlife parks. It was a thrill for me to see some of these creatures live and direct. One of the animals that I took care of at the San Francisco Zoo was the African Wart Hog, and they are one of my favorite animals. I was so excited to see them here in Akagera, and many of them were in pairs. These comical beasts always put a smile on my face. They make me laugh the way they roll in the mud, voraciously eat vegetation, stare at you intently then run away with their tails held high. I always think of Pimba from the Lion King.
One of the highlights of my experience in Akagera was seeing the pods of hippos in various lakes. While I was there, they were quite active, and it was great to see them frolicking in the water together. I was able to observe a few individuals out of the water, which gave me the opportunity to see how large they really are. Hippos are massive, and are the third largest land mammal. In the same area of the hippos, I was fortunate to see a Nile crocodile, basking in the sun as he lay in the mud-banks. His mouth was gaping wide, exposing an impressive set of very dangerous teeth. This prehistoric beast is the largest reptile, and they are abundant here in Akagera.
The park has approximately 500 species of birds, and is the second most important birding area after Nyungwe National Park. They have a large population of savannah birds, and raptors, including the African fish eagle, and Ruppell’s griffon vultures. The eastern wetlands area of the park is an important sanctuary for the numerous water birds found in Akagera. The papyrus gonolek, and the shoebill are a few species of water birds found here in the papyrus wetlands.
The scenic beauty of the savannah plains in Akagera is very picturesque. I was able to observe giraffes, buffalos, wart hogs, and zebras cohabitating together on vast, open plains. This was the quintessential African big game country setting, and I could have stayed here for hours watching these beautiful animals. Although I did not see any elephants on this trip, there are currently 90 individuals found in Akagera. Leopards are also found within the park, but are elusive and not commonly seen.
There are plans to reintroduce lions and rhinos in the future, which will restore Akagera’s “Big 5” status. I am really looking forward to seeing this project evolve.
For visitors who are interested in spending the night, there are two facilities in the park: Ruzizi Tented Loge in the riverine forest on the edge of Lake Ihema, and Akagera Game Lodge located on a ridge overlooking Lake Ihema. Other activities offered to visitors at Akagera include boat safari’s, night drives, and camping. I highly recommend visiting Akagera National Park. It will be an experience of a lifetime.
All Photos takes by Chris Austria