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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Akagera National Park

In July, I went with Sarah and our friend Lia to Akagera National Park to see all those special animals that you probably picture in your head when you hear “Africa.” It was awesome. Zebras are my clear favorite, followed by giraffes. When we saw the two together at the same time, I believe what I blurted out was, “It’s a dream come true!” It was pretty cool. Beyond that, I don’t think I can say anything about the experience that can’t be conveyed by my Facebook pictures. So, let me share some interesting and unobvious facts I’ve learned about Rwandan animals that can’t be told through pictures.

After the civil war in the 90s, many refugees came back over the borders from Uganda, Congo, Burundi, etc. to resettle in Rwanda. Now, Rwanda is a tiny and densely populated country and land is precious. When people started coming into the post-war country, they filled in wherever they could, notably in the National Park area. Today, the park is almost fully fenced – the animals live in a protected and uninhabited area. But that wasn’t the case back then. Thus, people lived alongside some pretty serious animals.

Maybe you’re not surprised by this. After all, everyone knows that lions, tigers, and zebras, are wandering all over Africa and the tribesmen hunt them in order to bring the meat back to their huts...

Okay, back to reality - As we all know, that is not reality, but that’s why I was surprised to hear stories that borderline come close to that depiction.

Today, there are no lions in Akagera, but there used to be. During that period in which people were coming to live there, the lions posed a threat – not just to people, but to their cattle, which were the basis of their livelihood. To eliminate the lions, they would wait for a lion to kill just one of the cows. Luckily, lions don’t eat their prey right away; they leave and come back for it later. So when the lion left, the people would poison the cow. When the lion returned for its snack, it would poison itself. The outcome: no more lions in Akagera. (Note: they’re importing some from South Africa next year.)   

I also learned about leopards. Apparently, they are friendly creatures, if you treat them right. Like the lions, you can leave a cow around for them to kill and eat. You don’t necessarily have to poison it, because if you just take care of it (feed it) and avoid threatening it, it will develop a protective bond with you. This is what I’ve been told, anyway. Apparently they’re more effective than a dog or a gun or a home security device. Anyone want a domesticated leopard?  

The buffalos, though, are extremely dangerous, and have been responsible for many deaths. I’ve heard some firsthand attacks of buffalo encounters that sound terrifying. One student somehow escaped an attack that killed his neighbor who he was walking with. According to his account, he was traumatized for three days.
Finally, there are the hippos. I had to ask about hippo survival tips because I watched a particularly enthralling documentary about hippos years ago with my college friends and have been terrified of them ever since. Did you know they can run faster than humans (despite their weight and stubby legs)? [Usain Bolt: 23 mph; hippo: 30 mph.] In fact, during our tour, I was convinced that I knew better than the tour guide that we should not go near them, even in a car. (He said we were safe.) Anyway, if you are ever being charged by a hippo, change directions. When they run, their ears flap over their eyes so they can’t see. If you change directions about three times, they’ll lose your scent and you’ll survive.

So there you have it – the animal facts that I have found most interesting. Arguably more interesting than touring the park in a comfy vehicle. Hope you agree!