August 19, 2017
My breakfast at the Step Town Hotel in Kigali was a lovely compilation of fresh fruit, veggie and a fried egg….perfect to send me off to discover the wilds of the Rwandan Savannah.
I said my goodbyes to the wonderful staff, who had treated me like family. JP, the Inspired Journey’s driver, came to pick me up and we were quickly off on our animal adventure. JP is a lovely young Rwandan who was very passionate as he regaled me on all the places we were driving through and all things Rwandan. He told me how Rwanda has a community day the last Saturday of every month…Even the President is involved…This day’s commitment is from 7am until 11am and everyone in the country works on their various community projects from cleaning up, helping build houses, volunteering helping with water etc. The Villages decide what their needs are for each month and those are the targeted projects. I wish we could have a day like that every month where we are all dedicated to the community at the same time.
As we drove toward Akagera National Park, one thing that jumped out was how absolutely clean every place was…I looked back on the pictures I had taken driving toward Congo and back and realized that this cleanliness was throughout the country. Driving around the US is a study in Litter…yet driving around what is considered a developing nation, the organization and pride is remarkable. This is the cleanest country I have ever seen…and I have yet to see a smoker.
JP and I chatted about all sorts of things and we both were quite excited about our impending adventure. We arrived at Akagera Visitor Center and met our guide Venuste. Venuste is part of a group of young villagers called the Akagera Community Freelance Guide Cooperative. This group all have gone through instruction on Conservation and Ecology and I found Venuste to be amazingly enthusiastic about teaching me about, not only the animals but also the topography and environment. How lucky I was to have these 2 men guide me for 2 days. We had such fun…and I learned so much.
A little background on Akagera National Park. Akagera used to be a much larger park but after the Genocide and the flow of Refugees, the State gave them piece of the park to farm…Just because the villagers had these farms, didn’t mean the animals, especially the 200 + lions understood the boundaries. The lions would raid the farms so often that, in 1999, the villagers decided to poison an animal carcass and leave it out for the lions to ravage…and they did…they died…and the animals that fed on their bodies died as did the vultures…That poison killed 3 species back. Every lion died from this and poachers. The State decided to try to create a coexistence between the villagers and the animals so that they could reintroduce the various species…They began this process back in 2007 after the last Black Rhino disappeared. Various animals were brought in from other parks in Africa…Then in 2015, 7 Lions were introduced and today there are 19. 18 Black Rhino were introduced just this past May 2017. In addition to the re-introduction of all the animals, the Park started a program where the villages get a percentage of the money brought into the park. Also they have started arts and crafts programs and the products are sold in the park as well. But one of the best programs is the Akagera Community Freelance Guide Cooperative where they have a troop of young Villagers who now are conservation guides. So there is now not only economic ties between villages and the Park but also a true passionate respect of the animals and the conservation that is needed to maintain the population through the good work of these young people.
Once we made introductions, we took off from the center and entered the park…As Venuste was giving me some information, I don’t know how he saw it but his head whipped around and he instructed JP to stop…Venuste enthusiastically said “Black Rhino” …Black Rhino…I looked where he was pointing and saw it! Standing with a shocked look on its face…We seem to have surprised it just a he had surprised us. But as quickly as I could turn my camera on, he was gone. BUT I saw it, a wild Black Rhino…only one of 18 introduced into the park just this past May.
We were all so stoked after the Black Rhino sighting, regardless of whether I got it on camera…So at this point, it felt anything else was, as the old saying goes, just gravy. Before we could sit on our laurels for too long, JP announced some Impala…Even though I am sure Venuste has seen more than his share of Impala and Antelope, he genuinely seemed excited to tell me all about the Impala and the many varieties of Antelope. His excitement, along with JP’s was infectious and made the Safari that much more adventurous and fun…As soon as we took the Impala pics, Baboons appeared…Funny, no matter how many times I see them, Baboons make me smile…actually all Primates…I think the Monkey bites I got as a kid must have infected me with a Primate gene…No matter what country I go to, Monkeys find their way to me or me to them…haha
Soon after the Baboons, we came upon the Water Buck…This is one animal I had not seen before….Today we were only doing a ½ day Safari at the Southern end of the Park so we were not in any rush…tomorrow was our full day one that covered the north as well…Just as we were about to make a curve, I noticed 3 vehicles stopped in front…Up until that moment, I hadn’t seen another vehicle…Akagera is different from a Park in Tanzania or Kenya because it is a bit Mountainous and has peaks that give great views and there is a tendency to feel as if you are the only ones out in the wilds…but with a more curvy drive if something is blocking the road, you are sort of dead in the water because there is no getting around the blockade…and in this case the blockade was rather large and ornery.
Mutware the elephant was not interested in any passers by today! He is 50-60 year old elephant, with no tusks but nonetheless quite aggressive and destructive. This particular Elephant is well known to all who work in this park. His story is quite sad. He, along with many other baby elephants were separated from their parents back in the 70’s in order to populate the Park……The Government never considered how expensive and hard it was to move adult elephants….so they didn’t…and they never considered what would happen to a bunch of baby Elephant who had no adults to raise them…As he grew, villagers sort of adopted Mutware…and he would get hand fed and became accustomed to humans and their handouts AND their ways…As he aged, he became more aggressive and the Villagers shunned him…The park tried to introduce him to various families but his human contact had created odd behaviors that the other elephants would not tolerate. That is how he lost his tusks…in a fight with another elephant…Well fast forward to today, and Mutware is a grumpy old man who knows enough about human behaviors that he can manipulate them…and he finds great solace in annoying any and all humans…He knows the timing of the cars and will work blockades and other destructive acts into his day to entertain himself. He is famous for his tenacity and destruction.
On this day, we were the 4th vehicle. Once the other 3 had backed up, we went in hoping to spur him along. I had no fear but both Venuste and JP were quite concerned and aware this creature could charge at any moment. So they took careful measures to respect Mutware and yet try to pry him from his obstinate behavior. We took some pictures and even had our lunch while there…But no movement…I even tried to appeal to his more compassionate side and called to him…All that got me was a shift in his stance and a nice picture…I guess that was a sort of was a win…Well, like the 3 cars before him, we were defeated…We backed up and went on a different path.
After our encounter with Mutware, we found a crowded Savannah filled with Bush Buck, who are notoriously shy and small…They are the only animal that will actually hide(in the Bush)…They have a very deep and threatening voice…So when threatened, they hide and use their voice because it sounds like a much larger animal….but they are just these cute little things….We also saw Velvet Monkeys. The males are famous for their Blue Balls…and blue they are…When trying to impress a female they make their sky blue balls as noticeable as possible to woo the lovely ladies…We saw so many different species of birds that I could not keep up…But I can attest they are all incredibly beautiful…and many species are cousins to birds we have in Florida like Herons, Ibis, Eagles, Hawks etc. One bird that was particularly fun to watch was the vulture…I think I got at least 2 decent pictures of that famous look of theirs and was quite relieved they weren’t giving me that look!
We came upon another breed of Antelope called the Topi. Venuste says they have a little nickname “Blue Jeans” because of the patches on their shoulders…Topi are known to be the fastest of all of them. Their Back legs are shorter than their front and both Male and Females grow horns…Nice to see that there is some equality in the animal world! (-:
Besides the wonderful Animals, the park was rich with all types of plants and trees. One that is quite popular with both Elephants and Giraffes is the Acacia Tree. It’s terribly spiky so I was amazed they could navigate around the spears but Venuste assured me that those spikes were no match for either animals bite.
Another interesting thing I learned is about flies…Yep, those little buggers are a huge pain, literally and figuratively for all in the park. It turns out they can carry diseases that hurt the animals. The park has devised these Flags…they are blue with a black middle…and they put fly poison on it. The flies are attracted to the blue color and then poison themselves. The Elephants sometimes get annoyed by the flags and will destroy them…a little counterproductive…but then Elephants want to be sure we are paying attention.
This park stays up on keeping their fire situation under control by engaging in controlled fires…On many of the roads, one side will be lush while the other is burned…Venuste said that this is to not only keep the fire danger low but also the minerals in the ash of the fire mixed with the new growth acts like vitamins & minerals for the animals…Venuste was full of great information to help me understand the world of these wild animals.
They had set up a Sunset Boat ride for me so we headed to the dock and I got to meet the Captain and my next guide, Teojen, who was so engaging and also quite passionate about the nature he was in charge of touring me through.. It turns out that we needed to wait for a few people who were coming on the boat. While waiting he and I chatted…And surprisingly, he wanted to talk politics…but not just the usual “what were you Americans thinking” kind…He wanted to discuss world foreign affairs…He was so smart and well informed. He told me he rarely speaks with his extended family because while he was growing up, his family was so very poor that they would ask his uncles and aunts for help to send him to school or for basic food…He said that as he grew, he realized that they actually looked down on him because he was so poor…But he showed them…He went to school…got highly educated and is a Captain of his own boat and doing quite well…Once the family arrived, an American woman with her adult son visiting her adult daughter who is working in Rwanda for the moment.
After our greetings, the 4 of us held on tightly as Teojen jetted us across the Lake to a Peninsula filled with all types of Birds, Crocs, Water Buffalo and Water Buck. We watched as an African Fish Eagle carried off a catch in his talons…The Fish Eagle is similar to the bald Eagle but the white color carries down the front like a bib and the back as well. They are definitely as elegant as the bald eagle and as deadly to their prey. The 4 of us got to know each other and discovered our mutual concern for our country. I joked with the Mom, who was from Louisiana and quite a Liberal that she was as rare a sighting as the Black Rhino! (-:
Once back on the dock, we decided to meet for dinner since it turned out we were all staying at the same lodge. We had a wonderful dinner and conversation and really enjoyed it. It was now time for bed!