The past few days, I had a wonderful opportunity to expand my research and enjoy time in Akagera National Park- Rwanda’s safari park. Akagera was recently taken over by African Parks, a non-profit organization that takes a business approach to conservation. Jes Gruner is the manager of Akagera, and it was through his cooperation (and with permission from Dr. Tony Mudakikwa of the Rwandan Development Board) that I was able to go to the park to sample the baboons there for comparison with the ones that live in the Muvumba forest.
The ecosystem of Akagera is extremely unique- although it is technically savanna habitat, it looks almost nothing like the Serengeti of neighboring Tanzania or other more typical savanna parks (shown commonly on shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom). This is because like everywhere else in Rwanda, Akagera is extremely hilly- they don’t call Rwanda the “land of one thousand hills” for nothing!
A large portion of Akagera was degazetted after the genocide to make room for returning refugees, but the park is still large enough to host healthy populations of animals such as elephants, zebras, giraffes, various antelope species, hyenas, and even leopards. This year, lions will be translocated to Akagera in an effort to restore the population- lions were driven to local extinction by farmers who poisoned them to protect their cattle. Now, however, the park is surrounded by an electric fence to prevent crop raiding and cattle-killing, so it is likely that lions will thrive once they are introduced. In the next few years, the park plans to also reintroduce black rhinoceros to reinstate the parks “Big 5” game status.
My sampling took place in two locations- the Akagera Game Lodge (the largest hotel in the park) and la Pecherie, an old fishing village that is now utilized as housing for some of the park staff. The baboons in these areas are extremely tolerant of humans, and the ones in the lodge group have even been known to steal hamburgers and chips right off of the plates of unsuspecting tourists. When I was at the lodge, however, there were not many people because it was the middle of the week, and so the baboons spent most of their time raiding the trash piles behind the kitchen. This made for an even smellier-than-usual day of fecal collection, and I was happy to escape the dumps the next day in favor of la Pecherie.
But before that, I had a very special opportunity- I was able to tag along on one of the night game drives offered for tourists. Knowing that the previous few drives had seen leopards, I was hopeful as I departed with Rashid, our driver, Kenny, a volunteer from South Africa, and two British tourists. The drive started out a bit slow- we saw some duikers and other ungulates but nothing very exciting. At some point, it seemed like the most interesting thing we were going to see was a group of bush pigs- a fairly rare sighting but still less magical than a leopard.
When all hope seemed lost, a shadow appeared on the side of the road. As Kenny moved the light over, we all gasped- it was a large leopard (Kenny thinks it was an adult male) stalking an unsuspecting bushbuck. As we watched, we became aware of the primal instincts that come out in such a situation. Although I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, I wanted nothing more at that moment than for the leopard to rip the head off of that bushbuck!
But alas, the hunt failed and it’s hard to say who was more disappointed- us or the leopard. We met up with what we believe was the same leopard farther down the road stalking a mixed group of zebras and antelope, but once again, no kills were made. On the way back, we caught a glimpse of a hyena.
The baboons at la Pecherie seemed much less dependent on humans, although they did converge around the kitchen to steal scraps when lunch was being made. I spent the whole day there because I was relying on the park’s vehicles for transportation, so I had to wait for staff shifts to begin/end to get a ride back to main camp. Over the course of the day, I made friends with the rangers who live there, and they were kind enough to share their lunch with me (which was much more appetizing than my smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwich!).
I also made friends with some of the local animals, such as Jessica, a one-handed vervet monkey who was taken in by the park staff after she was injured. She reminded me of a cat, the way she flopped over when I scratched behind her ear, and she was quite endearing as she hopped around camp, begging for chips or other morsels from our lunch.
Our other mammalian visitor was Mutware (Kinyarwanda for “chief” or “boss”), the oldest elephant of Akagera National Park at 43 years old. Mutware is a solitary bull- he doesn’t get along with the other elephants, but he has a special affinity for people. When la Pecherie was a functional village, Mutware was known for his love of the banana beer brewed by the locals. He still makes a point of checking the jerry cans every time he visits, just in case one of them holds his favorite beverage!