Date: Fri, 12 Jan 1996 01:43:10 GMT
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/*Written 9:36AM Jan 5, 1996 by E_WOLANSKI@AIMS.GOV.AU in biodiversity*/
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Death of the Akagera National Park, Rwanda - Is Zaire's Virunga National Park Next?
From E_WOLANSKI@AIMS.GOV.AU. 5 January 1995
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 2500 km2. 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 50% of the hippos have been destroyed 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?