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The balance between tourism and conservation at a Rwandan national park

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And I'm Juana Summers at Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda. Like the country of Rwanda, which is 30 years post-genocide, this national park has its own rehabilitation story.

(SOUNDBITE CAR DOOR THUDDING)

SUMMERS: It's a little after dawn, and we pile into an SUV with a national park guide. As we drive, my eyes are constantly darting around, hoping to see something surprising. It does not take long.

PENINA KAMAGAJU: There's a leopard. There's a leopard.

SUMMERS: A leopard crosses in front of us. Even our guide, Penina Kamagaju, is surprised.

It's a leopard.

KAMAGAJU: That's a leopard, yeah.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh, it's crossing right now.

KAMAGAJU: Crossing the road, yeah.

SUMMERS: It doesn't seem to see us. He's staring at the car now. He's beautiful. He's walking away. I mean, it's - I've never seen a leopard in real life before. It's absolutely gorgeous. It's walking across the path.

This is one of Africa's oldest national parks, sitting just at the border with Tanzania. After many people fled the violence of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, some people and their cattle ended up inside the park, which put a strain on the park's ecosystem. For a time, the park was floundering. Some species disappeared.

JEAN PAUL KARINGANIRE: It was the aftermath of genocide. Everyone was concentrated on unity and reconciliation. So the government has a lot of tasks, and conservation was not a priority.

SUMMERS: That's Jean Paul Karinganire, a park tourism manager. As the country rebuilt, a big part of the park land was given to Rwandan refugees looking to start their lives over. The country took steps to encourage international tourism. Today, it makes up 11% of Rwanda's GDP. And the country wants to keep growing tourism, but it's a balance.

KARINGANIRE: Tourism is really growing so fast, to the extent that we are afraid that it may destroy the integrity of our conservation purpose.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALKIE-TALKIE BEEPING)

KARINGANIRE: Alpha one five, Alpha one five...

SUMMERS: Inside a big control room, rangers monitor the entire park around the clock. They keep tabs on everything on this big digital map - not just the animals, also the tourists.

So just looking at the screen here, I mean, I see the little icons that looks like a hiker. So you're able to track tourists in the park, vehicles and animals all through the same system.

KARINGANIRE: Yes, through the same system in one screen.

SUMMERS: More than 50,000 people visited Akagera last year, and nearly half those visitors came from outside of Rwanda. As we drive through the park, though, on this day, it's not too busy. At times, it feels like we have the whole park to ourselves. We stopped for a bit near a campsite to stretch our legs and take in the view.

What's that over there?

KAMAGAJU: Those are impala.

SUMMERS: Impala.

Bounding past us are two impala, a mother and her baby.

What's your favorite part about your job? You have the coolest job in the world.

KAMAGAJU: Thank you. I'm always like to see the nature. I'm always like to be in the nature. But the things which was interesting to me - I like to hear the melody for the nature.

SUMMERS: The melody of nature. Penina is a birder, and she's carrying a big, heavy pair of binoculars. And sometimes she shares them with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SUMMERS: She says there are more than 500 species of birds at the park, and she shows me a tree full of village weaver birds.

KAMAGAJU: They're called the village weaver because they weave their nest.

SUMMERS: So many of the animals we see as we drive - they are just feet away from us.

I don't know if I've ever been close to that many wild animals before. And you get to do this every day at work.

KAMAGAJU: Yes. That's why I'm rocking (ph). I say to everybody, my office is very interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMERS: Thank you for bringing us into your office today. We loved every minute of it.

KAMAGAJU: Great. Thank you. We are very, very pleasure to have you because we need a lot of people who be in the eyes of us, be like our ambassador for the park. Thank you so much.

SUMMERS: Tomorrow we wrap up our reporting from Rwanda with a look at the country's rapid development. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has been celebrated for transforming his country post-genocide, promoting Rwanda as a safe tourist destination and a hub for tech startups.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME: Our journey has been long and tough.

SUMMERS: But he has also been criticized for cracking down on dissent and jailing his opponents, charges the Rwandan government denies. We'll take a closer look at that complicated image and what it might mean for the country's future. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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