The pride of a nation
Lions are our ancient symbol of power, they are embodied in the golden mane worn by Intore dancers in our national dance. We have come to see the Gorilla as our national symbol because of the tourist revenue it brings but in our hearts we have a special place for lions. It is a difficult relationship, especially for those from cattle-keeping background who respect but loathe the lion, for it kills one’s wealth. There was a time when lions were common in Rwanda, especially around the North-East. My relatives would tell of stories of going to boarding school in Gahini escorted by men with Spears as you trekked for days to reach school. The roll-call would always have one or two missing who succumbed to lions or crocs along the way, it was a fact of life to be eaten by a lion. After the horrors of 1994, we had the return of refugees and they often settled in the less inhabited East and cattlemen drove their cattle into the Park. In 2000, the last remaining pride in Rwanda was poisoned in its drinking water, 15 lions died. It was a sad day for Rwanda, the Akagera Park suffered further setbacks due to Tanzanian poachers and local encroachers. The death of the lions led to more disease among the herds, lions are like doctors removing sick and wounded animals and control disease in the herds.
Rwanda is a nation that lost its identity along a very traumatic road, our nation is unrecognisable compared to 50-100 years ago when most of it was forest and savannah. A massive explosion in population led us to expand settlement to practice subsistence farming, the more we expanded, the more the population grew. Cattlemen were looking for pasture, farmers looking for land to cultivate, in the end the land was scarce. In destroying our environment we lost our context, this made it easier to lose our identities and turn on each other. A farm-worker once complained to me that a strange animal was attacking the chickens, half-snake and half-cat. I wondered if we had discovered a new species unseen before, turns out it was a mongoose. A simple mongoose is unknown to some Rwandans, they call every animal “Igisimba” regardless of size, features, species. We have names for every animal in our ecosystem, these words have been lost as we replaced all our forests with Australian Eucalypts that don’t host species and destroy the soil. These animals were in our myths, they were our clan Totem Symbols, and they embodied certain qualities we wanted to reflect in mankind. The wily mongoose, the tricky jackal, the mocking baboons, the grumbling elephant, the sinister leopard, all were staples in our myths, now reduced to Ibisimba. The average Rwandan thinks history started in 1994, because most have been born since then, many of these stories would mean nothing as the animals would be unknown. Rwanda is 26,000 sq km, 30% is forest, 25% is water, humans live on the other 45%, do the maths. Can we make room for animals? We need to for our heritage
Big cat diary
Our neighbours knew the value of lions, they refused outright to sell or transfer any lions to us. They knew Gorillas and lions are a killer combo. So we had to look further afield to South Africa, but before that we needed preparation for the safety of people and animals. The Akagera Park is in Eastern Province, the land of cattle-keepers, more cattle per square kilometre than the rest. Naturally, locals were fascinated but worried that the lions will pose a threat to their lives and livestock. The Park was fenced off down one side, a 110km electrical fence powered by solar power so it will always be on. This will protect the park from encroachers and keep the lions inside. The 7 lions have been radio-collared with GPS devices that track their movements, a person can watch them as blips on a screen, plus you have trackers and rangers to watch them visually. So every precaution was taken to avoid the calamity of what could happen if a lion escaped. The abundance of game in Akagera means the lions would not have to leave the camp in search of food or water. The park could eventually accommodate up to 50 lions in the long-term. Our tourist sector is heavily dependent on Gorillas, a unique product but oversold. The problem has been other activities for tourists to spend on while they are here, to get more revenue per tourist. We need people to invest in activities for tourists, bike hires, water sports, hiking trails, eco-tourism, living with locals, cultural tourism, anything to squeeze that extra dollar out of them.
The tourism section of RDB was instrumental in fencing off the park, the park management company Africa Parks was also instrumental in the procuring and logistics of the release. Bralirwa was also instrumental in that they paid for the flight and were linking it to their Brand called Turbo King, they also publicised the return with a naming competition. We didn’t know what to expect, the lions had spent some 28 days in an enclosure called a Boma made of electrified razor-wire. We didn’t know if the lions would venture out, but they had been starved for a couple of days to make them more likely to come out. We were warned but many of the journalists were flippant, they didn’t understand what a lion can do to you and it was like a yellow dog to them. “Lions don’t eat people, why are you scared for?” said one dozy journalist, reassuring his equally ignorant friends. An encounter with a lion is primal, it strikes fear into your heart, their eyes lock on you to say “get out of the car and I’ll show you.” The first lioness came out after two minutes of the gate opening, her sister followed, then three more females. They devoured a Waterbuck in 8 minutes flat, it was bloody. The males refused to leave the enclosure as there were ten cars parked outside. They were still young and hadn’t claimed their territory, the males will go off on their own, and the females will likely split into two
groups. In recent news, they have all left the boma area and have begun exploring. The Sister’s went exploring the Mutumba hills and were chased off by a pack of 16 hyenas, being outnumbered, they fled back to the safety of the lakeside area which is abundant with prey during dry season as animals stick to the waterside areas with lush green grass. I will be updating you once a month on the events in Akagera in my “Big Cat Diary” as I find out more about the trial and tribulations of the lions, the Pride Of Our Nation. all this in a week when the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe highlighted our blindness to the destruction of our heritage, wildlife and environment, send them to Rwanda instead of shooting them