The warm nights of Rwanda will echo once again with the roar of lions. This weekend saw seven lions take their first groggy steps on the nation's soil, returning the predator to the country 15 years after it was first wiped out. This release marks a prominent point in conservation not just for Rwanda, but also Akagera National Park where the lions have been reintroduced, which has seen catastrophic losses of biodiversity over the past few decades.
It was in the wake of the 1994 genocide – which saw an estimated 800,000 people killed over a 100-day period – that the lions suffered their unfortunate fate. During the horrors of the slaughter, people fled into the countryside to make a living working the land and raising cattle, and this brought them into direct conflict with the lions still roaming the wilderness. “I still have the pictures of the last three lions that were poisoned... it was very sad,” recalled vet Tony Mudakikwa to Agence France-Presse.
The lions that were transported from South Africa arrive in Rwanda. Credit: Stephanie Aglietti/AFP
The seven new lions – two males and five females – have come from game reserves in South Africa after a 30-hour journey, and have all been radio-collared. Currently, they’ve been released into a specially created holding pen where they will be quarantined for at least 14 days. It’s hoped that the collars will last for up to two years, allowing the researchers to closely monitor where they go and how they behave.
Alongside collaring the animals and ringing the park in an electric fence, the conservationists have been trying to work with local herders and communities in order to gain support for the project. In surrounding villages, they’ve been performing educational plays and running a football tournament called “The Lion King.” Even though some locals seem on board with the project, there is no question that there are still doubts as it is feared their reintroduction could cause losses to livestock.
Two of the lions spotted at night after having been released into the holding pen, or boma. Credit: Stephanie Aglietti/AFP
The effort has been spearheaded by the conservation group African Parks, who run and manage Akagera along with seven other national parks across Africa. Akagera has seen an estimated 90% loss of its biodiversity since its designation in 1934, and has already had giraffes and elephants reintroduced. There was also an attempt to have black rhinos wandering the park again, but after the resurgence in poaching during the 1990s, this attempt failed. African Parks, however, hopes to succeed where others have failed.
“[The lion reintroduction] is a milestone conservation achievement for both the park and the country and is a positive development that we have all joined in celebrating,” said Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, in a statement. “It is also an initiative that bodes well for the reintroduction of rhino into Akagera.”