Seven big cats transported from South Africa to Akagera national park, with park officials now working to reintroduce rhinos
Groggy on their paws after waking from tranquillisers, lions have returned to Rwanda for the first time since the endangered animal was wiped out following the country’s 1994 genocide.
The seven lions (two males and five females) were transported in a 30-hour journey from South Africa – first by air, then the final stretch by road – to Rwanda’s eastern Akagera national park.
Schoolgirls sang outside the park, a 112,000-hectare (276,800-acre) area bordering Tanzania, welcoming the predators as they ended their journey.
One by one, they were released into a giant pen, where they will stay for initial quarantine of about two weeks, before being allowed out into the wild of the park itself.
“It is a huge conservation milestone, it is the beginning of a fantastic chapter for lions in Rwanda,” Akagera park’s director, Jes Grüner, said.
Lions in Rwanda were wiped out in the years following the 1994 genocide, which left an estimated 800,000 people dead. Fleeing refugees and displaced people occupied part of the park, with the lions being driven out or killed as people tried to protect their livestock.
Lions to be reintroduced to Rwanda after 15-year absence following genocide
“I still have the pictures of the last three lions that were poisoned … it was very sad,” said Tony Mudakikwa, a vet.
The return of lions symbolises more than a conservation success. “We are excited as a nation,” said Yamina Karitanyi, head of tourism and conservation at the Rwanda Development Board. “We are proud to welcome the lions.”
About two hours by vehicle from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Akagera is an important tourist destination, with 28,000 visitors in 2014, and it is hoped the return of the lions will attract more.
Much preparation was needed: the park is ringed with electric fencing, and the big cats are equipped with satellite collars to reduce the risk of them entering inhabited areas.
“Of course, a lion can kill a cow, but now that there is the fence there is less risk,” said Phocus Rukundo, a cattle herder. “The people can no longer kill the lions because they understand the importance of their conservation for tourism.”
But much work was still needed to persuade people living nearby that the return of the predator should be welcomed. “I am sure there are still people nervous about it,” said Sarah Hall, who is in charge of tourism at Akagera for African Parks, a conservation group which works across the continent.
Educational plays were put on for communities bordering the park, as well as a football tournament called The Lion King, Hall said, adding that 5% of park income in Rwanda was donated to community projects, such as funding schools or health centres.
The lion remains listed as vulnerable at a global level, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said last month in an update to its Red List of threatened species. The IUCN warns that trade in bones and other body parts for traditional medicine in Africa and Asia is a new and emerging threat to the species.
But Akagera offers a safe space, with plenty of food for lions, and is home to multiple antelope species, buffaloes, giraffes and zebras, as well as leopards and elephants.
Park officials are now working to reintroduce rhinos in Akagera. “Without the lions, it was as if I had just a hand with three fingers, now I have four,” said Eugene Mutangana, head of law enforcement at the park. “With rhinos, my hand is complete.” source-guardian.
photo-A plane containing seven lions transported from South Africa arrives in Kigali airport.- Photograph: Stephanie Aglietti