Sun. Jun 4th, 2023

Matson & Ridley Safaris offers a one-of-a-kind citizen science safari in Akagera National Park that directly contributes to the conservation of Africa’s wildlife.

An African safari is one of the most life changing experiences one could have. Now animal lovers can participate in a citizen science focused safari in Rwanda’s famous Akagera National Park to conserve Africa’s most iconic species. Elephant expert, Dr. Tammie Matson of Matson & Ridley Safaris, offers safari-goers a unique chance to help protect elephants and give back to the community.

Poaching and conflicts with humans have made the African elephant one of the most endangered animals in the world. With the help of the Akagera Management Company, a partnership between African Parks and the Rwanda Development Board, strong community engagement and high-end tourism from safaris, these mammals in Akagera are beginning to thrive.

History of Akagera Elephants

Akagera National Park was on the verge of being lost forever nearly two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide devastating the environment. Returning refugees settled in and around the park, clearing the land to make way for farming and cattle. “It was a depleted landscape overrun by more than 30,000 cattle, lost all of its lion, wild dog and rhino populations,” shares JP Karangire, Assistant Manager of Tourism and Marketing of Akagera National Park. “Human encroachment was high and wildlife in general was not secured.” In 1997, the park was downsized and two-thirds of the original park went to returnees looking to settle down after the genocide.

In 2010, when African Parks partnered with the Rwanda Development Board to assume oversight of the park, Karangire says the “park transformed into an ecologically functioning and income-generating park benefitting community and wildlife.” Today, Akagera is the largest protected wetland in Central Africa and a popular safari destination, generating revenue in the millions. In recent years, lions and rhinos were reintroduced and the collective animal population rose from less than 5,000 to more than 13,000.

Elephants in Akagera had an unusual beginning. In 1975, around 26 young elephants were introduced to the park from a cull in southern Rwanda. Thanks to conservation efforts, they number roughly 130. “During the early to mid-1990s, times were tough for people and wildlife alike. Poaching was rife in Akagera and many of the elephants now bear the wounds of poacher’s snares set during this time,” shares Matson.

An electric fence along the western border of the parks now prevents human-elephant conflict. Thousands of snares have been collected to prevent damage to elephants and other wild animals that call Akagera home.

Akagera Elephant Project

Australian native Matson, who spent most of her life as a conservationist in African wildlife-rich countries, returned to Rwanda to study Akagera’s elephants. She began The Akagera Elephant Project in 2018 in collaboration with the Akagera Management Company to conduct the first ever research study. The project is aimed at gathering data on elephant herds, including their ages, gender, familial groups, and identifying features of individuals and their behavior in the park.

The Akagera Elephant Project uses techniques developed over the years by the Amboseli Elephant Project to use characteristics, such as ear tears/holes and tusk shape, size, to identify elephants and become familiar with their families. So far, the project has succeeded in recording two-thirds of the elephant population in the database.

The project, Matson says, also has “a developmental element through training of local guides, park staff and university students in elephant identification techniques”. Matson runs a local guide course in elephant ID techniques the week before her scheduled safaris so those living in the area can continue the work throughout the year as citizen scientists.

Citizen Science Safaris

Targeted high-end tourism, which can include citizen science trips, provides the funding needed for the conservation of large tracts of wildlife habitat and the preservation of wildlife in countries like Rwanda, according to Matson. Involving the people in the surrounding communities furthers the cause. “When you bring local people to the table as genuine partners in high-end tourism, and use it to create jobs and skills in places where there aren’t too many other economic opportunities, you see real sustainable development in action,” says Matson.

Successful conservation efforts result in an increase in wildlife populations and socioeconomic benefits, which in turn deter the need for poaching. When you go on a Matson & Ridley safari in Akagera, you will be accompanied by Matson herself along with local guides from Akagera Guides’ Co-operative. “We pay local guides who live just outside the park and are important ambassadors for conservation in the community.”

Citizen science trips not only fund conservation projects like Akagera Elephant Project, they help researchers like Matson to continue the important work of studying threatened wildlife populations, with help from fellow identifiers. The photographs and notes taken by safari-goers are added to the Akagera elephant database. “It’s impossible for me to take enough photos at one sighting, so having extra citizen scientists there enables a lot more data to be collected and compared during analysis.”

The travelers benefit, too, because going with a qualified conservationist and regional guides means a broader understanding of the situation on the ground, learning about the work being performed to conserve animals, and having conversations around what needs to happen to continue progress.

What to Expect on a Matson & Ridley Safari in Rwanda

While wildlife populations are growing, and sightings of rhinos, lions and leopards are an increasingly spotted on game drives, Akagera doesn’t have as large a density of wildlife as some of the better known parks in Africa, like the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya. This safari, Matson recommends, is “for people who are looking for a more meaningful conservation experience, the chance to get to know elephant families better and the opportunity to make a difference”.

The trip begins in Kigali and is followed by three days in southern Akagera National Park working on the Akagera Elephant Project. It continues with three days in northern Akagera for further project work, then an additional three days gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. Guests also get a chance to participate in African Parks’ activities such as walking the fence line with the rangers, visiting local Rwandan communities and enjoying sunset boat rides on the lakes. A typical group is between six to 12 individuals.

Guests will stay at the charming Heaven Boutique Hotel in Kigali, and the comfortable Ruzizi Tented Lodge in Akagera, surrounded by monkeys and hippos overlooking the lake. Other lodging will be at the luxurious Wilderness Safaris’ Magashi Camp, in the northern part of Akagera, and the community-owned Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge near Volcanoes National Park.

Matson ensures that the lodges and camps she selects “set the bar high in terms of both the tourism experience and the positive impacts.” The tour operator works with high-end, Africa-based companies, such as Asilia Africa, Natural Selection and Wilderness Safaris, that are dedicated to minimizing their environmental impact and maximizing empowerment of people living near wildlife areas. “Ultimately we look for partners that are as driven by conservation as we are.”

Matson strongly believes connecting people to wild animals and places is essential to having any hope of conserving them for the future. “Going on safari in Africa isn’t like going to a zoo. When you’re out in the bush, you see people

shedding layers of stress and anxiety and literally ‘waking up’ to what it used to be like for all of us as a species, when we used to live in a connected way with nature.”

Now, thanks to initiatives like Akagera Elephant Project and citizen science safaris, you too can experience the wonder of an African safari, while contributing to conservation in a meaningful and transformative way.

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