Protecting and maintaining wild areas throughout Africa requires enormous effort and cooperation between governments, local communities, NGOs and even travelers in order to ensure these landscapes are preserved for generations to come. African Parks is a truly amazing not-for-profit that has taken this challenge head on. Founded in 2000, African Parks has been contracted to assume responsibility for rehabilitating a number of national parks throughout Africa in close cooperation with governments and local communities, and in many cases then takes on long-term management of the parks to ensure the continued success of these global treasures.
One of the keys to the long-terms success of African Parks is their close working relationship with the government bodies that own the parks and other protected areas, as well as partnering with the local populations that must benefit from the tourist dollars that the parks bring in. By maintaining a strong focus on economic development and working to reduce poverty in the local areas surrounding each park, African Parks ensures that each park is not only ecologically sustainable, but is socially and financially sustainable as well, helping to provide long-term benefits to the communities at large.
African Parks currently manages 15 parks and protected areas spread across 9 countries. These parks cover over 10 million hectares of land and are home to a vast array of animal and plant life. Given the diversity of landscapes and options available to travelers visiting these amazing wilderness areas, there are options available to suit any visitor’s areas of interest. I have had a chance to visit a number of these amazing landscapes – most recently when I was lucky enough to spend time in Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Congo.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park
Odzala was designated as a national park in 1935, making it one of the oldest such parks on the continent. Odzala is nestled in the heart of the Congo Basin, which places visitors right in the middle of the second largest rainforest in the world. This spectacular natural wonder covers more than two million square kilometers, spread over parts of six countries, and hosts extraordinary biological diversity. On my recent trip, we took full advantage of the endless opportunities to be found in the rainforest, including several amazing days tracking western lowland gorillas by foot. We also took the time to travel the forest by canoe and used it as an opportunity to search for forest elephant and buffalo from an intimate vantage point. In addition, Odzala offers the chance to interact with local pygmy communities and learn about their way of life in the vast rainforest – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you don’t want to miss!
Akagera is a great illustration of the unparalleled success of African Parks approach to preserving and managing critical protected lands. Today, Akagera is Central Africa’s largest protected wetland, and is critical to the protection of Rwanda’s savannah-adapted wildlife. However, as recently as 20 years ago, the park told a different story. Refugees returning after the 1994 genocide were battling for survival and looked to the lands that comprised the park to supply basic needs such as timber for fires and animals for meat. Refugees hunted predators along with the area’s population of black rhinos to near extinction and introduced cattle for grazing, decimating the park’s vegetation. These activities put so much stress on the park that it almost ceased to exist.
In 2010, African Parks, in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board, assumed responsibility for the park. After years of intensive efforts and effective law enforcement management, the park saw the reintroduction of black rhinos and the translocation of two male lions, which enhanced the genetic diversity of the growing pride. By halting almost all poaching, the park’s key wildlife demographics have increased and are beginning to thrive. Now, every year, nearly 50,000 visitors experience the beauty of Akagera National Park.
Akagera is a mere two hours’ drive from Kigali, making it surprisingly accessible. The park contains a unique diversity of habitat, including savannah, mountains, lakes and marshes, making for spectacular sightseeing. Akagera also offers unmatched birding, with over 480 documented species. And as the tourism infrastructure continues to bloom, including the establishment of tented retreats like Karenge Bush Camp, there has never been a better time to visit Akagera.
Are you interested in learning more about African Parks projects? Visit their website – Africa Parks, or better yet, contact us to plan a visit to one of their amazing protected areas.