Lions Are Returning to Rwanda, and That’s a Boost for Ecosystems and Economies

Adding the big cats will restore biodiversity and drive tourism in the Central African country.
Two of the five lionesses destined for Akegara National Park. (Photo: Matthew Poole/RBD Rwanda Flickr)
Jun 28, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Seven lions are taking a 26-hour trip north from their range in South Africa to Rwanda, where the species has not been seen in the wild in 20 years.

Five females and two males, taken from parks that have a small surplus of the big cats, will be released into Rwanda’s Akagera National Park on Monday, according to conservation group African Parks.

The 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which roughly 1 million people were murdered in 100 days, also spelled disaster for predatory species. With society in ruins, the few remaining lions in the wild were stamped out, killed by survivors of the atrocities who feared the lions would attack them or their livestock.

“The return of lions to Akagera is a conservation milestone for the park and the country,” said Peter Fearnhead, African Parks’ CEO, noting the significance of restoring the park’s biodiversity.

So, Why Should You Care? Thanks to human encroachment and poaching, conservation experts estimate lions have disappeared from 83 percent of their historical range. Any new habitat where they can live safely and reproduce is a welcome development for the vulnerable species. As one of Africa’s Big Five animals—along with the rhinoceros, the leopard, the buffalo, and the elephant—the lion is a major draw for tourism, so the transfer could also be a boon to the economy in Rwanda, where 45 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the latest figures from the World Bank.

Although the 112,000-hectare park is fenced in, the lions will wear satellite collars with a two-year shelf life to ensure that they don’t stray into inhabited areas.

“Their return 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,” said Yamina Karitanyi, a tourism executive at Rwanda’s Development Board.

The park borders Tanzania and is just a two-hour drive from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Last year, 28,000 people headed to the park to see roaming giraffes, antelope, zebras, leopards, and elephants. Those numbers will likely increase as the new lion pride makes the park a one-stop destination to see more than half of the Big Five species.