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Man Versus Beast in Remote Corner of Rwanda

Nearly seventeen years after civil war and genocide devastated Rwanda, the country is mostly peaceful, and the economy is growing fast. But in the eastern countryside, a kind of conflict still rages. Wild animals from one of Rwanda’s premier tourist destinations attack people and destroy crops, while gangs of poachers rob protected forests. Our reporter files this story from Akagera National Park and surrounding villages in Rwanda.

In this remote corner of eastern Rwanda, giraffes munch quietly on tree-tops while zebras wander in the hills. Even the wild buffalo, some of the most dangerous animals in Akagera National Park, stare lazily as tourists snap pictures.

But in nearby villages, locals say the animals are not always so peaceful.

Beatha Mushimiyimana is a farmer who grows beans, sorghum and maize. During the dry season, her husband went out to search for more food, but he never came back.

"My husband went to look for something to eat because of drought," she said. "He went with two people, and they met a hippopotamus in a sorghum farm. Around 8pm one of the men came to tell me my husband had been killed by the hippo. He left behind three children. "

Park officials say Akagera National Park could be a major addition to Rwanda’s $200 million plus tourism business and fastest growing sector. But because of ongoing human-animal conflict, development in the park has stalled.

In response, the government of Rwanda is funding a $2.7 million electric fence to help keep the animals in and poachers out.

Last year, five people were killed and 15 wounded in animal attacks near the park. In July, a man was mauled to death by a buffalo and earlier this spring, nearly half the elephants in the park wandered into a nearby village.

Theogene Semugisha oversees social services for Ndego, a district of almost 15,000 people near the park. He says animals raid 80 percent of the farms in this already impoverished district every year.

"The animals come into the farms, tear up the crops and leave the people with nothing," he said.

Locals complain that despite government promises, they have not received compensation for lost property, or lives. Adele Mukansanga grows beans and maize. She says buffalo and hippos often destroy her crops.

"Every day they come,' she said. "Since 2006 we have reported the problem, and wrote letters about how they are destroying crops. Every year we harvest nothing and nobody comes to pay for what they have destroyed."

Like other locals, Adele looks forward to next year when the fence is expected to be complete. More tourists will come in, she says, but more importantly, the animals will stay off of her farm.