After spending 15 years in exile, lions are finally returning to Rwanda

Lions are returning to Rwanda for the first time since the imperilled animal was wiped out in the wake of the country’s 1994 genocide.

Seven lions are settling into their new home at Rwanda’s eastern Akagera national park, after being flown in from South Africa last week. Schoolgirls sang as the big cats arrived, welcoming the predators at the end of their 30-hour journey.

The five female and two male lions were released one by one into a giant pen, where they will live in quarantine for two weeks before being allowed to roam wild in the 276,800-acre park.

“It is a huge conservation milestone, it is the beginning of a fantastic chapter for lions in Rwanda,” Akagera park’s director, Jes Grüner, said.

Lions were driven out of Rwanda 15 years ago during the chaos that followed the 1994 genocide, when fleeing refugees occupied parts of the wildlife park. Many lions also lost their lives as displaced Rwandans sought to protect their livestock from the predators.

“I still have the pictures of the last three lions that were poisoned … it was very sad,” said Tony Mudakikwa, a vet.

For many in Rwanda, the return of the pride is not only a conservation success. Yamina Karitanyi, head of tourism and conservation at the Rwanda Development Board, said: “We are excited as a nation. We are proud to welcome the lions.”

Akagera promises to offer a safe space for the embattled lions, as well as a sustainable supply of prey, with the park also being home to sundry antelope species, buffaloes and zebras.

And park officials are planning to build on the success of the lions’ return by reintroducing rhinos to Akagera too. “Without the lions, it was as if I had just a hand with three fingers, now I have four,” said Eugene Mutangana, head of law enforcement at the park. “With rhinos, my hand is complete.”

Image via William Warby / cc

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