Kigali – Despite the midday heat, crickets play a deafening concert, tsetse flies buzz in the humid air, a frightened ibis screams, hyenas laugh in the distance.
But Drew Bantlin, the conservation manager of Akagera National Park in Rwanda, hears only one sound: the faint beep of his digital tracking device, which tells him where the lions are.
Big cats are Akagera’s pride. The symbol of Africa was already locally extinct in 2010 in East African Rwanda, which was once home to 300 big cats. But then a resettlement project changed that. Five females and two males were moved from South Africa to Rwanda. Today the herd has 43 animals and the numbers are constantly growing.
After all, what would Africa be without lions? No animal species attracts more visitors than savannah rulers. However, symbolic animals are increasingly threatened. There are only around 500 lions left in West Africa and around 20,000 of the iconic big cats left across the continent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) has classified the species as “vulnerable”, but the number of lions continues to decline at an alarming rate. For every wild lion in Africa, there are five western lowland gorillas and 21 African elephants. Rhinos are also more numerous than lions.
Critical population decline
Habitat reduction, decline in prey due to demand for bushmeat, uncontrolled trophy hunting and the illegal trade in lion bones have meant that the African lion population has halved over the past 25 years.
Although the lion is considered an icon of Africa, its decimation goes almost unnoticed, warns Peter Lindsey, director of the non-profit Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) conservation program. The decline must now be stopped immediately, Lindsey asks. Animal rights activists have therefore set themselves an ambitious goal: they want to double the number of powerful big cats again in the next three decades.
A first step in saving lions in Rwanda began in 2015. The journey of the first seven big cats from South Africa lasted 35 hours in special containers, first by plane and then by truck. They were Rwanda’s first wild lions since the animals were wiped out locally in the years following the 1994 genocide which killed 800,000 people. At that time, refugees occupied part of the Akagera National Park in the north-east of the country and used it as a pasture. To protect their livestock, they hunted and poisoned the remaining lions.
The resettlement was successful
Seven years after the first big cats were resettled, the resettlement project is already enjoying great success. About a three-hour drive from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, 43 lions now live in the 1,100-square-kilometer nature reserve, along with rhinos, buffaloes, elephants, zebras, giraffes, leopards, hyenas, hippos and antelopes. Bantlin’s team, supported by the African Parks animal rights group and leading the Akagera resettlement project, closely monitors the herd with digital tracking devices. Rangers monitor the animals’ social, hunting, and mating behavior, keep an eye on their health and offspring, and protect lions from poachers.
Since the return of the lions, Akagera has become one of Rwanda’s top tourist destinations. Previously, visitors only came to see the mountain gorillas, which live in Virunga Park further west, bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then they left immediately, said Jean-Paul Karinganire. , spokesperson for the Akagera National Park. “The lions have given the park a new status,” he says. The annual number of visitors has risen from 15,000 in 2010 to 50,000 today. The park’s revenue increased more than tenfold over the same period. According to Karinganire, the money created jobs and went to nature conservation.
“The lion is the first animal that comes to mind when one thinks of Africa. Every safari tourist wants to see a lion first, “says Charli Pretorius, an ecologist at Phinda Nature Reserve in South Africa, who donated five of the first lions to Rwanda. This also has to do with the positive connotation that the film industry has. Hollywood created with films like “The Lion King,” Pretorius says.
Positive impact on the ecosystem
In Akagera, the return of the lions achieved much more than the increase in income. Predators help restore balance to an ecosystem that was neglected for many years after the genocide, Karinganire says. The presence of lions, which are at the top of the food chain, has had a positive impact on many other species, she explains. For example, there are now more hyenas and other scavengers in the park, including the woolly vulture, which is classified as “critically endangered”. “From the beginning we felt that bringing the lions back to Rwanda would be something special. But we could not have dreamed of the extent of the positive changes for the country and the people, “Pretorius explains.
What Rwanda felt following the resettlement has now been documented by scientists: according to a study by the ecological research company Equilibrium Research, the lion is a key species with exceptional importance for species and nature conservation. Big cats are not only important for tourism and the economy. They are excellent indicators for the health of the entire ecosystem and for sustainable development.
“Where investments are made in protecting lion habitats, the whole ecosystem benefits,” says the study. The tourist potential of pack animals is unique. Lions bring in billions of euros a year, which motivates African countries to invest more in nature and animal protection.
Bantlin and his team are already considering the possibility of relocating the lions from Rwanda to other countries where the population has also dropped dramatically in the near future. One possibility is neighboring Uganda, which currently has fewer than 500 lions and the number is rapidly decreasing, Bantlin explains. Because the goal is not just to create a healthy lion population in Rwanda, says Bantlin. We want to ensure that the king of beasts is preserved throughout Africa.
© dpa-infocom, dpa: 220327-99-687528 / 2