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Rwanda villagers mauled by animals escaping refuge

- - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

AKAGERA NATIONAL PARK, RWANDA Villagers near this wildlife refuge live with the daily fear of being mauled to death by animals protected by the government.

The elephants, water buffalo, crocodiles and other beasts of the refuge live in danger of poachers who kill them for meat or hides.

Park rangers, meanwhile, try to keep the animals in, the poachers out and the villagers safe.

Local leaders say as many as 80 percent of farms in the area lose crops to animal raids every year.

"Sometimes, animals kill people. Sometimes, they destroy their crops," said Theogene Semugisha, who oversees social services for Ndego, a district of nearly 15,000 people adjacent to Akagera park.

"Then [villagers] cannot feed themselves. It is a very big problem."

In another village, Mushimiyimana Beatha lives with the memory of the day when a wild hippo killed her husband.

"During the dry season, we don't have enough food," she said on the streets of Humere in eastern Rwanda. "My husband went to the forest to get us something to eat. He met a hippopotamus. Villagers found him, and we buried him the next day."

The hippo had wandered out of the 386-square-mile refuge, which is teeming with wildlife and panoramic vistas. Last year, animals killed five people and mauled 15 others. Last month, a wild buffalo killed a man, and nearly half of the park's elephants wandered into a neighboring village.

Like Humere, many other villages in this rapidly growing region are almost entirely populated with refugees who returned in recent years to Rwanda after fleeing war. Almost all are poor and have no place else to go.

In the 1990s, after civil war and genocide devastated this tiny country, the Akagera wildlife park was crowded with refugees, militants and farmers with nowhere else to graze their cattle. Native lions and rhinoceroses were poached or poisoned.

In the years that followed, Rwanda began building internal peace and expanding its economy. Authorities retook the park, which technically has been protected since the 1930s.

Inside the park today, giraffes loiter in the grasslands and giant crocodiles bob in the lakes, while the wings of rare birds skim the glassy surface. Zebras meander through the hills, and baboons sift through the belongings of park staff and steal everything they can get their hands on.

The Rwandan government and a South African nonprofit developer, African Parks, are planning to build a $2.7 million electric fence around the most contentious areas to keep the animals inside the park.

Park rangers say poachers, sometimes in bands of up to 100, attack animals daily. They snare hippos for their large swaths of meat, elephants for tusks and crocodiles for their skin.

Some illegal hunters are poor villagers seeking protein, but rangers say no animal is safe as long as "bush meat" - any animal that can be eaten - continues to be sold in back-alley butcher shops across the region.

"Poaching, historically, has been very, very bad in Akagera," said African Parks project manager Bryan Havemann. "At the moment, it's still bad. We are working on getting a well-motivated paramilitary-trained law-enforcement force."

Mr. Havemann said rangers are up against well-armed poachers willing to fight for their catch. Last year, he said, two rangers were killed and a third survived a gunshot wound.

Commercial fisheries also continue to operate inside Akagera despite its protected status. Lakes are fished until they are virtually lifeless and take years to recover.

"Inside a park, animals are supposed to have protection," Mr. Havemann said. "Those fish have just as much right to that protection."

Soil erosion, water shortages and overpopulation in surrounding areas also threaten the long-term health of the park, said Chris Murphy, an international-development master's degree student at Trinity College in Dublin who is working in Akagera.

Mr. Murphy said the long-term life of the park depends on the health of the surrounding communities.

"If the poorer people outside the park are seeing that the park is thriving, and they are getting no benefit, it's going to be very difficult to maintain the fence," he said.

"It's going to be very difficult to stop poaching. It's going to be very difficult to maintain water supplies within the park."

Mr. Havemann said a government plan to share tourism income with local communities could offer some relief. If the fence can keep the animals in and rangers can keep the poachers out, he said, the park can proceed with its plan to import lions and rhinoceroses.

The addition of these animals would make the park home to what some call the "big five" tourist attractions: buffalo, elephants, leopards, lions and rhinos. Rwanda is already famed for its rare gorillas.

For farmers in Humere, building the electric fence is far more pressing than drawing tourists.

Mukansanga Adele grows beans and corn, but buffalo and hippos often destroy her crops. Elephants have stolen stored food, and her children are in danger from wild hyenas.

"If they build a fence to keep the animals out, that would be good," Ms. Adele said. "Then we could feed our children."