During June I was privileged to travel to two of Africa’s most exciting conservation projects: Akagera National Park in Rwanda and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia.  These previously neglected reserves form part of African Parks Network’s (APN) portfolio of privately managed conservation areas across the Africa continent.  APN have pioneered an innovative approach to conservation with a park management model that combines sound conservation practices with solid business principles.  They only enter into management agreements for neglected conservation areas at the request of sovereign governments and in partnership with local communities and wildlife authorities.  Their management style is hands on and long-term with the goal of slowly building capacity and sustainability over time.  The end result is that neglected and abused chunks of wilderness are effectively rehabilitated into fully functioning ecosystems capable of sustaining themselves long after African Parks have pulled out.

After 36 hours of flight delays courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, I finally arrived in Kigali and made my way east to Akagera National park on the Tanzanian border.  Akagera is the newest addition to APN’s portfolio of parks and the project is still in its infancy, yet there is an undeniable feeling that the tide has turned and the park is looking forward to a bright and exciting future.  New vehicles, uniforms and infrastructure development have raised morale, while training and capacity building are underway to mould an effective team capable of propelling Akagera onto the tourism map as a must-visit East African safari destination.  Under the direction of Bryan Havemann, the project looks to have made impressive headway in its first few months of operation.  A great accolade to the new team’s tireless efforts was being asked by the incumbents to please not work so hard!  A sure sign that things have changed for the better.

The park is made up of an incredible diversity of habitats from rolling hills and open grasslands to lakes, wetlands and woodlands.  The Kilala Plains in the north of the park still boast sizable herds of game with good numbers of topi, bohor reedbuck, zebra, buffalo and defassa waterbuck, as well as giraffe and eland.  Sightings of elephants near the lake shore and rare roan antelope in the surrounding hills, not to mention an incredible array of 525 bird species within its 110,100 ha, means that Akagera has the potential to rapidly bounce back from decades of heavy poaching and neglect.  With the committed support of the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and the resources and expertise of APN, there is little doubt that Akagera will soon realise its massive potential and emerge as a successfully rehabilitated and fully-functional conservation area.

My next stop was Liuwa Plain National Park in western Zambia; a park that already stands out as a rare African success story.  In 2004 APN partnered with the local Lozi people and the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) to take over managerial responsibility for Liuwa.  During the last six years poaching has all but been eradicated from the park and animal numbers have swelled.  This is best illustrated by considering that the number of migrating wildebeest has more than doubled to over 40,000 during the last five years.  Liuwa is home to Africa’s second largest wildebeest migration, but boasts considerably better birdlife than the Mara or Serengeti can offer.  Predators abound.  Huge clans of hyaenas dominate the open plains, while wild dog packs and cheetah have returned to roam the grasslands in search of their favoured oribi and steenbok prey.  However, Lady Liuwa, the much publicised ‘last lioness in Liuwa’, inevitably steals the show.  After many years of solitude, this fine ambassador for Liuwa was recently joined by two majestic male lions from Kafue and it is hoped that cubs will once again stalk the plain before the year is out.

In the space 48 hours, accompanied by Craig Reid the Liuwa park manager, I witnessed some of the most amazing wildlife viewing of my entire career.  We watched lions stalk wildebeest, three wild dog kills (including one scrub hare chase viewed ‘Planet Earth style’ from the air in a microlight), hyaena-wild dog wars over the carcasses and all of this under a full moon on the wide desolately beautiful plains of Liuwa.  It has been my privilege to visit hundreds of parks through out Africa and indeed the world, so when I say Liuwa is in my top three parks worldwide,  I genuinely mean that this is a very special place and one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.