Early in the first week of October, the Akagera National Park announced the passing of Mutware, the elephant. For those of us who had a chance to see Mutware in the park, learning of the sad news prompted memories of the thrilling encounters with elephants of Akagera. But it also provided an opportunity to reflect on its life and what its story means to the future of conservation.
Unlike for many other animals in the park, tour guides, park wardens, and visitors tell Mutware’s story with intrigue. That’s why, even if you don’t enjoy an intimate connection with another species, Mutware’s story is meant to reside in our minds.
According to Akagera Management Company (AMC), which runs the park, “Mutware was raised alongside humans as a young elephant but was returned to the wild successfully, and continued to live peacefully in the park for more than forty years.”
Mutware died of natural causes at the age of forty-eight.
In a detailed report from April 2016, Tik Root wrote about the story of Mutware:
Mutware’s notoriety is born of a painful past. None of the dozen or so people I’ve spoken with about Mutware—whose name in Kinyarwanda translates to “chief”—seem to know his full history. But most tellings begin in the mid-1970s when settlers from Kigali were expanding into the nearby Bugesera swamps; land that was already occupied by Mutware’s herd of elephants. When the animals began raiding crops, authorities decided to kill all the elephants over the age of about eight and airlift or float the twenty-six remaining calves east, to Akagera. Mutware and two females were among the first batch of orphaned elephants to reach the park. There, a keeper named Boniface Zakamwita raised them on porridge and sugarcane.
Domesticated life was never particularly good to Mutware. [Gael] Vande weghe remembers people routinely abusing the young pachyderm, taunting him and chasing him with nail-filled boards. But humans also offered a steady supply of food and treats like bananas or cassava. On April 7, 1994, Mutware’s life changed again, when Hutu militias began targeting the Tutsi minority living in Rwanda. Over the next hundred days, as many as one million people were killed. In the aftermath of the genocide, coping with chaos became the norm for Rwanda, and Akagera was no exception. Thousands of returning refugees set up camp in the largely unguarded park, many looking to reestablish their cattle-farming tradition. The mix of people and wildlife was explosive. Lions began preying on cattle. Farmers retaliated by killing off the entire population. Depending on the telling, Zakamwita, a Hutu, either fled to Tanzania for safety or was imprisoned for perpetrating genocide. Regardless, Mutware was left to fend for himself.
“Since ’94, it started its own life,” said Mutangana. Alone and hungry, at first Mutware tried to rejoin the other elephants, but it didn’t go well. Mutangana told me he believes the herd rejected Mutware, who likely lost his tusks in clashes with stronger bulls. Forced back toward humans, this time Mutware decided to take what he wanted. “You can imagine how much he can eat in an overnight,” Mutangana half chuckled and half bemoaned. He pointed off the side of the boat to a sorghum field, which he says is one of the elephant’s favorites.
In his last years, a statement by AMC said, Mutware spent most of his time at the southern tip of Lake Ihema, often in the water, only travelling through the park once a year for a few weeks at a time.
Animals we go visit stir different curiosities, all of which – if we cared to satisfy – would reveal stories like Mutware’s.
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