JOHANNESBURG, South Africa Poachers have burned one-third of Rwanda’s largest national park, hampering efforts to protect wildlife from dangers posed by the country’s fast growing rural population.
“It’s true: One-third of Akagera National Park has burnt over the past week … (but) the fires are under control as I’m speaking,” park warden David Mugisha said Thursday from Rwanda.
Akagera is a haven for wildlife in overcrowded Rwanda, where more than 8 million people are squeezed into just 10,160 square miles and deforestation is already widespread. The sprawling park in the east of the country is home to elephants, giraffes, zebra, and various species of antelope and monkey.
Mugisha said poachers lit the fires to scatter animals and then set snares to catch them should they return to feed on vegetation that grows back.
“We are very much concerned….. It’s very damaging and very abrupt for the biodiversity of the park,” Mugisha said.
He said the poachers were both commercial hunters and subsistence hunters trying to feed themselves. Rwanda’s rural population is among the poorest in the world.
Mugisha said no arrests had been made but patrols in the park were being increased.
The fires will also hurt Rwanda’s fledgling tourism industry, which is a key foreign exchange earner along with coffee and tea.
The news comes days after conservation group WWF International said illegal settlers have destroyed huge areas of mountain gorilla habitat in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, threatening the survival one of the world’s rarest animals.