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Lions to return to Rwanda after two decades

Seven lions, two males and five females, will be reintroduced to eastern Akagera National Park.

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    Lions will return to Rwanda for the first time in more than two decades.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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Lions will return to Rwanda for the first time since they were wiped out following the 1994 genocide, Wildlife officials say.

Seven lions – two males and five females – were donated by South African game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal province in a conservation milestone after the big cat population dropped to zero following the country’s civil war, which killed more than 800,000 people.  

Rwanda's new felines will be transported by air on Monday and will be quarantined for at least 14 days, before being released into the wilderness of eastern Akagera National Park.

Park officials in Akagera told AFP that the reintroduction was "a ground-breaking conservation effort for both the park and the country of Rwanda."

"It’s a breakthrough in the rehabilitation of the park," Yamina Karitanyi, head of tourism at the Rwanda Development Board told the New Times of Rwanda. "Their return will encourage the natural balance of the ecosystem."

After the 1994 genocide, many farmers and cattle herders who fled the attacks, returned to find themselves landless. To solve the problem, the Rwandan government used a part of the Akagera National park to resettle them.

This resulted to a catastrophic human-wildlife conflict. "The lions took advantage of the cattle and killed them, and the only way the herdsmen knew how to get rid of the lions was through poisoning," Jes Gruner the park’s manager told CNN.

In recent years, the Rwandan government has taken steps to protect and preserve its wildlife. In 2010, the government installed a 1.8-meter-high electric fence around the park.  

Last year, Kenya offered to donate eight lions to Rwanda. But Kenya’s wildlife conservation groups fiercely opposed the plan saying Rwanda had not sufficiently addressed issues that resulted to the loss of its own lion population.

On Tuesday, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said the lion remains listed as vulnerable at a global level. According to IUCN, the lion population has been declining in eastern Africa, which historically has been a stronghold for the species.

IUCN listed the western African lion subpopulation as "critically endangered" due to over-hunting and a decreasing supply of prey.

The Rwandan government says it has conducted an extensive community awareness program to ensure co-existence and will also track the lion’s movements in order to protect them. “They will all be fitted with satellite collars, which will enable the Akagera National Park management team to monitor their movements and reduce the risk of the lions entering community areas,” Karitanyi  said. “As an additional precautionary measure, the park fence has been predator-proofed.”

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