Seven lions began their journey Monday from South Africa to the Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, where they will become the country’s first lions after more than a decade without them, wildlife officials told Agence France-Presse.
Rwanda has been slowly recovering from 1994’s devastating genocide, which lasted a mere few months but left an estimated 800,000 men, women and children dead. In the aftermath of the genocide, conservation took a back seat to the efforts to address the human toll and trauma.
Akagera’s lion population disappeared in the years following the violence, as the park was left unmanaged and cattle herders targeted the predators with poison, according to African Parks, an organization partnering in the reintroduction of lions to the country. This is the first time the roughly 433-square-mile Akagera National Park will host lions in 15 years, the organization says.
African Parks is an organization dedicated to the preservation of national parks on the continent that partners with local bodies to manage Akagera, as well two parks in Zambia and one each in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Congo and Chad.
“The return of lions to Akagera is a conservation milestone for the park and the country,” Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, is quoted as saying on the organization’s website. “We, in conjunction with our government partner, the Rwandan Development Board, are delighted to have been able to reintroduce one of the key species to this beautiful national park.”
Five female lions and two males—which “have been selected based on future reproductive potential and their ability to contribute to social cohesion”—are being donated by two small reserves in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. At those reserves, “it is necessary to remove surplus lions, a situation that arises with good management,” according to African Parks.
The animals’ more-than-daylong journey was set to begin Monday with the lions being tranquilized and taken via truck from the reserves to an airport in Johannesburg, then flown to the Rwandan capital of Kigali and finally taken on the road to Akagera, which is on the border with Tanzania. There, they’ll be quarantined for at least two weeks before being released into the park.
According to the Rwanda Development Board’s tourism website, visitors to Akagera can see nearly 500 bird species and encounter elephants, buffalo, zebras, olive baboons, leopards and many other animals. The site indicates that there are plans to reintroduce the black rhino in 2015 along with the lion, “which will restore Akagera’s ‘Big 5’ status,” it says. The “Big 5” animals of Africa are the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“It is a breakthrough in the rehabilitation of the park under the public private partnership between the Rwanda Development Board and African Parks,” Yamina Karitanyi, the chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board, is quoted as saying. The return of the lions “will encourage the natural balance of the ecosystem and enhance the tourism product to further contribute to Rwanda’s status as an all-in-one safari destination.”
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