15 Dec
While visiting Rwinkwavu Sector in Kayonza District, I had an opportunity to experience the day-to-day life of an ordinary member of the local community. I met terrific people in the area and listened to their fascinating stories.

Before I left, I dropped by Akagera Community Center, a natural history site run by the community. It was one of those unscripted stopovers I usually make. No appointment, no problem. Kutibuka Ettienne, who introduced himself as a community attendant, was there to cater for my every need.

Ettienne guided me through the center’s museum and gave me a detailed account of the neighboring Akagera National Park’s turbulent history. Once upon a time, Akagera was much bigger than it is today. Land is not the only thing the park has lost over the years; the size of its wildlife population and biodiversity also plummeted at some point.

Settlements around the park brought forth a new kind of pressure. Population growth and the advent of returning refugees made it hard to control constant human interference with nature.

Cases of poaching were common. In other scenarios, animals were killed because they preyed on livestock and destroyed crops. Conflicting interests in land ownership and utilization led to friction between community members and the authorities tasked with protecting wildlife.

To manage the inevitable animosity, a new paradigm giving a significant stake to the surrounding communities emerged. Through tourism, sustainable, non-consumptive means of income were created. Parties sharing a common goal were unified to safeguard mutual long-term benefits.

Spurred by the growing number of tourists visiting the park, tourism became the driving force behind conservation efforts. The new conservation policies are formulated while putting the community into consideration. Through revenue sharing, the government injects 10% of the park’s revenue into a wide range of projects designed to improve the welfare of the surrounding communities. This is done in order to further extend the economic benefits of tourism to the people and give them a sense of ownership.

Initially, law enforcers had to step up their game but public awareness is what eventually became the game changer. Today, the community is at the forefront of conservation. It finally makes sense to protect natural resources as opposed to depleting them.

At Akagera Community Center, I soaked up interesting information on Savannah wildlife. I also learned one or two things about beekeeping and low-investment, high-reward farming practices. Before I left, I took a minute to mourn the loss of animals killed by poachers during that dark chapter in the history of the park.