“How much did he say?” Paula whispers into my ear. “$600 million. He said $600 million has been pledged towards conservation.” I reply, suddenly looking around me to try and spot the billionaires in the room. But the audience is only a 150 strong, with no signs of ostentatious wealth or conspicuous huddles of bodyguards.
This is the final afternoon of the Business of Conservation conference, hosted by the African Leadership University (ALU). In front of me, standing on the small stage at the centre of a spectacular, circular auditorium, is the ALU’s charismatic Ghanaian founder, Fred Swanicker. Deceptively diminutive, he has – to the shock of much of the audience – just announced that this three-day conference has generated more than half a billion dollars in funds for conservation.
Yet, I am not sitting in New York, London or even Cape Town. This auditorium forms a glowing multicoloured pear on the outside, lighting up the skyline of Kigali – the capital city of Rwanda. Best known for the genocide that tore this country apart during 1994, Rwanda has reinvented itself. Kigali is one of Africa’s most modern and developed cities, looking to become a pan-African hub for trade, politics and now conservation.
Paula and I are here accompanying a group of journalists from the US, UK and South Africa. Their pens scribble furiously as Fred is replaced on stage by those who have reached for their chequebook. First up, is a pledge towards sea turtle protection, then national park administration, then support for rainforests. These are just the headliners, Fred tells us. Over the coming days, more information about pledges will be released.
Kigali is funky, as well as functional. Celebrating the conference’s success, we descend upon a hillside restaurant, where disco lights illuminate a decorative zebra statue, a DJ plays African beats and the Botswanan Minister for Investment teaches dance moves to a gaggle of tipsy Westerners.
The next morning, with some of the group feeling more delicate than others, we drive east for a hands-on taste of conservation. Leaving behind the urban energy of the conference, we descend on Akagera National Park. Strung along the Tanzanian border, this landscape of lakes, hills, woodlands and floodplains is a far cry from cosmopolitan Kigali.
Just a decade ago, there were more snares in this park than there were animals. Large mammals were all but wiped out, as cattle grazing and poaching decimated the wilderness in the aftermath of the genocide. In the early 2000s, Akagera was a park in name only. Now, it is East Africa’s newest Big Five park.
African Parks agreed to take over management of the park in 2010. And since then, with the wholehearted support of the Rwandan government, the park’s fortunes have drastically changed. Borders have been secured, poaching has been eradicated, tourism has been established and key species have been reintroduced.
We bump along Akagera’s dusty red roads until we arrive at the park headquarters. Here, Sarah, the tourism manager, greets us and gives us a short tour of the operations centre. Born in Malawi, Sarah has been at Akagera since the beginning. She has seen the park reinvented.
Inside this unassuming building is a high-tech command centre for monitoring the park’s wildlife. Sarah demonstrates the resources at their disposal, which include an alarm system on the electrified fence, low-frequency triangulated tracking of key species and a visual representation of recent incidents in the park. Contrasting with this technology, more traditional approaches still have their place; a vast map of Akagera covers one wall, dotted with annotations.
Sarah is enthusiastic about the technology, but also emphasises the importance of the highly trained rangers that protect this park. Without them, the successful reintroduction of lions and particularly rhinos would not have been possible.
It is these reintroductions that have become the standard bearers for Akagera’s success. Yet, in many ways, this is old news. The resurrection of Akagera is now in the past, but what lies in the future? Sarah is clear: the answer is tourism.
The park is 75% self-funding, having made huge strides in driving both national and international tourism. But capacity is limited. Currently, there are just two camps in the park, both of which are in the south. Therefore, if Akagera is going to sustain itself, it needs to expand its tourism infrastructure.
The next day, we drive north, often through thunderous rain showers that disappear as quickly as they appear. We are going to see Akagera’s future – the next step in supporting conservation through tourism. For four hours, we drive along the rutted red tracks, as the riparian woodland gives way to floodplains and marshlands set in wide valleys.
At a fork in the road, we meet Chris Roche, from Wilderness Safaris. We leave the main track and drive onto a low-lying patch of land, flanked by lakes on either side. Hippos splash in the water, crocodiles bask on sandy banks and, in the distance, mountains rise dramatically. This the Magashi Peninsula and will soon be home to Wilderness Safaris’ new Magashi Camp, Chris tells us.
As we stop for a picnic beside the lake, I have time to appreciate the beautiful location. This will be the only camp in Akagera’s wild northern sector, guaranteeing exclusivity. The lakes are also home to a small population of breeding shoebill storks. Chris tells us that locating and monitoring these is high on Wilderness’s initial priorities.
After lunch, we set off in search of another local resident, a lioness who has been radio-collared. This area is popular with the park’s lions and the open floodplains make them easier to spot than in the wooded south. Unfortunately for us, this lioness has chosen a particularly dense thicket to hide within, perhaps – we start hypothesising – to look after her new-born cubs.
Disappointed but not disheartened, we drive further north through the park, through a landscape that seems increasingly rich with antelopes, buffaloes and giraffes.
As we cross an open area of short grassland, our eyes are glued to a 300-strong herd of mud-splattered buffaloes on our right. Not a fan of bovine creatures, I turn away first and look to the left. I freeze as my eyes rest on three tawny shapes under a dead tree.
“Lions!” I exclaim, struggling not to shout.
Three magnificent young males are lying in full view, several hundred metres away. Captivated by this picturesque park’s remarkable story, we are all excited by the discovery. Posing for us are the poster boys of this story – creatures synonymous with conservation success.
What makes this success all the more important is that, much like these lions, it is born and bred in Africa.
Often, conservation is funded and formulated in the West, then imposed on Africa. But African Parks, just like Fred and the ALU, have realised that this does not work. Africa needs to be protected and conserved for Africans, by Africans. Not too long ago, many would have called this a pipedream. But, now, it is becoming a reality.
Sarah, despite being born on African soil, sums up this commitment perfectly: “We won’t be here forever. We need to give this park back to the Rwandan people.”