When I was in Sydney, several of you put notes on my wheel-chair asking me
to post the Akagera NP,
Rwanda, report. Here it is!
Glen J. Ingram
"The fault is great in man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common;
But what can plead that man's excuse
Who steals a common from a goose."
DEATH OF THE AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK, RWANDA - IS ZAIRE'S VIRUNGA NATIONAL
In the midst of almost infinite human suffering in Rwanda, the plight of
the last of Rwanda's wildlife has been forgotten. With maybe a million
people killed in one of the worst massacres in history, it is little wonder
that world attention has not been directed at Rwanda's great African
wildlife reserve, the Akagera national park. The Akagera National Park
covers <Picture>. It was gazetted sixty years ago. It spans the escarpment
and flood plains of the eastern part of Rwanda bordering Tanzania and just
touching Uganda. The park has the shape of a triangle pointing northward.
It is home to most of the wildlife that is associated with the great
African game parks including .lion, leopard, buffalo , hippo, rhino,
elephant, topi, zebra and impala. It also had a remarkable selection of
birdlife in its swamps and wetlands, the most extensive in Africa together
with the Okavongo delta in Botswana. For sixty years and up to last year it
was preserved intact thanks to dedicated conservationists. In terms of
natural beauty, landscape, scenery and animal life, the Akagera is one of
the best national parks in Africa, but it looks like it is now gone. It now
seems inevitable that the park will soon cease to exist as the Rwanda
government moves to degazette the park.
World conservation organisations such as the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are aware
of the situation in the Akagera national park but keep surprisingly silent,
maybe because they are on soft money, depend on various grants and probably
do not want to advertise failure.
In the early 60's many Tutsi fled to the country to Uganda. These Tutsi
formed rebel groups which brought down the Hutu government last year. The
Tutsi people have now returned to Rwanda with huge herds of cattle, but
have nowhere to graze their cattle - except the Akagera national park. At
the very least 650,000 from a probably conservative FAO estimate, and maybe
as much as 2 million cattle from an estimate from the director of RTS, have
entered the Akagera national park the last nine months, causing serious
overgrazing. Most of this cattle belongs to a few rich, influential people
in the new Rwanda government which shows little sympathy for the park. The
Rwanda army has been sent in to destroy the lions who were attacking
cattle, and then slaughter vast herds of animals who could pass on diseases
to the cattle. Hunting wildlife with guns and automatic weapons is common
and large scale and wildlife meat is commonly used to feed the army. The
park office at the lakes shore is now an army hunting camp. Trees have been
cut in huge numbers for fuel and buildings. In the northern region, large
number of temporary houses, bars and brothels, have been built - many with
UNHCR blue plastic sheets. Some NGO relief agencies are working to help
care for the people who have invaded the park. Nobody is helping to care
for the wildlife. The international community is spending vast sums of
money to help Rwanda. The present focus of humanitarian aid with no strings
attached and no plans for the future leads to nowhere. What is needed in
Rwanda is a visionary country to re-focus its aid so as to have make a
long-lasting impact. It can do that by offering, before it is too late, a
packaged aid to the Rwanda government focusing on the Akagera national
park. This package would provide humanitarian aid in the northern region
which has been invaded beyond hope, but also aid in the southern region to
re-establish the park infrastructure. In the long-term this would help
Rwanda start its economy again, from tourism. Without this vision, aid
leads only to making Rwanda a permanent economic basket case because there
is nothing else there beside tourism and a bit of coffee to lift people out
of permanent poverty. If something is to be done, there is not much time
left. To quote a June 1995 letter from WWF "The Rwanda politicians think
that it is more important to take care of the people's needs than to keep
the park, even after taking into consideration its ecological importance
and economic potential. Some time ago the Minister of Agriculture declared
that the park should be degazetted, in all or in part, to accommodate the
returnees basic needs. The Minister of Environment and Tourism confirmed
this possibility and told me that a decision would be taken very soon".
Rwanda has the highest population density of any country in Africa, and it
is still doubling roughly every 25 years. This growth puts tremendous
stress in a country where racial tensions are always at a flash point.
Whatever wildlife that still remains including the mountain gorillas will
be obliterated. There is intense pressure on all national parks in Africa.
There is shortage of agricultural and pastoral land throughout Africa, and
populations are still growing. It is only the western tourist dollars that
stops most parks from being overrun in a similar way to what occurred in
the Akagera. Akagera may be just the first domino in a line that will
eventually see all of the great east African parks disappear.
Even the famous Serengeti national park in Tanzania has seen in ten years a
doubling of the human population the last 10 years, now numbering 1 million
people, living along its borders. Most people are not born there, but
migrate there to benefit from conservationists' efforts in improving the
lifestyle of the people around the park. Many settlers turn into poachers.
The disaster in Akagera national park is a reminder of Malthus' prediction
of an exponentially growing human population devouring all its natural
resources just to stay alive. The Akagera is one case where a visionary
donor country could make a long lasting impact by providing a package to
Rwanda of humanitarian aid in the northern region and restoring the park in
the southern region. No donor country has provided Rwanda an incentive to
save the Akagera national park, 60 years of dedicated and successful
wildlife conservation have been wasted in 6 months.
The Rwanda refugee problem is also affecting the Virunga National Park in
Zaire (ex-Albert National Park). This park was also created over 60 years,
the first national park in Africa. It is listed on the World heritage List.
Dismissing the park administration, UNHCR found this park a convenient
place to let the refugees cut wood, 15,000 people every day in this task
invading the park. Probably half of the bamboo forest has been cut already.
So many poor, hungry people devastate the wildlife. Though a recent article
in 'National Geographic' stated that only one gorilla had been killed, more
recent information was that four of the five habituated silverback gorillas
were massacred by Rwanda refugees. At the same time thousands of hippos in
the Rwindi-Rutshuru plains of the Virunga National Park have been butchered
in 1995 for meat and ivory, probably 50destroyed already. Further north in
the Virunga National Park, refugees have invaded the Tshiamberibu enclave
north of Lake Eduard, home of an isolated pocket of mountain gorillas and
wiped out the lot and destroyed the whole forest. Not a whisper about this
massacre was heard anywhere.
1995 was truly the saddest year for wildlife conservation in Africa ever.
The stunning silence of world wildlife conservation in front of such
wholesale destruction of wildlife is a tragic reminder of their impotence
and reliance on soft money. Even United Nations agencies find national
parks, created sixty years ago and listed on the World Heritage List, a
convenient place to place refugees, without solving any problems as the
refugees are still there in the park with their guns, lawlessness and
poaching. The situation is hopeless and only visionary countries by direct
intervention could save the Akagera and Virunga National Parks now.
Australia has shown leadership worldwide in conservation issues: Could it
show this leadership in Rwanda and Zaire? Without a visionary country, no
wildlife and no forest will remain, 60 years of dedicated conservation work
will have been wasted without even solving the human problem.
It may be only a matter of time for similar problems to occur in Australia.
Will Kakadu be transformed in a refugee camp if a man-made or natural
famine occurs in Asia and millions of people land in Australia peacefully
but uninvited, just like they did in Rwanda and Zaire national parks?