It was 1999, exact date unknown. A group of farmers from Kageyo village in eastern Rwanda were tiptoeing through Akagera National Park on Tanzania’s border, returning to the carcass of a cow they had laced with poison the previous night.

As the contaminated corpse came into sight, the farmers noticed that their bait had been taken – four lions lay dead in the dusty earth beside their final, fatal meal. Mission accomplished. Or not. 

“Next to the dead lions were the footprints of another lion, which had walked away,” recalled Kalisa Emmanuel, one of the farmers. “It hadn’t eaten the poison.”

A pursuit ensued and the men soon located the lion. “It attacked us and one of us went down,” Emmanuel said. “The lion tried to kill him. It crushed his arm.” In the panic, Emmanuel scurried up a tree while another farmer speared the animal.

The lion died and three of the farmers were injured; one seriously, with deep cuts to his abdomen. The unscathed men took the wounded to hospital and they survived. Their heroic story was reported on local radio that night.

A crucial detail missing from the broadcast, however – one that nobody knew at the time – was that those lions were Rwanda’s last. Motivated not by malice, but by a desire to survive in an impoverished country still reeling from the 1994 genocide, those farmers had unwittingly pushed the county’s lion population to extinction.

Their actions were indicative of what was happening across Akagera, which, after the genocide, became inundated with refugees returning home from other countries. Attracted to the park by its fertile soil and freshwater lakes, these refugees grazed cattle, chopped down trees and killed wildlife. They were desperate times, which called for desperate measures. 

“At the time we were proud of killing the lions because they were killing cows,” said Emmanuel. “Now we are sad.”

Sixteen years later, lions are poised to make a comeback in Rwanda, as part of a project that will also see rhinos reintroduced to the park. This week, seven lions – five females and two males, imported from South Africa – will be released in Akagera, the country’s only protected savannah region.

Things will be different this time. After resettling refugees outside the park, which was downsized from 2,500sqkm to 1,122sqkm in 2010, the Rwandan government appointed the non-profit organisation African Parks to restore Akagera to its former glory. They fenced off the park to reduce human-wildlife conflict and funded outreach projects in neighbouring villages to engage local communities.

“It’s good,” said Emmanuel of the reintroduction. “Now we have a fence, and we have had assistance from the park building schools and other projects.”

Emmanuel is confident the new arrivals will bring more tourists to Akagera.

“We are happy. This is another attraction – there will be more people coming to the country,” he said.

As I bounced through the park in a Land Cruiser, I shared Emmanuel’s optimism. Granted, there are more obvious places to go on safari than Akagera: the 15,000sqkm Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania dwarves this humble reserve and is already home to the Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino). But Akagera has its own appeal. Though small, it has an extraordinary diversity of landscapes – lakes, mountains, savannah and wetlands – that harbour a staggering array of wildlife.

There are approximately 500 species of bird, according to my venerable guide, Amos, who stopped regularly to point out his favourites, from the mighty African fish eagle to the flamboyant lilac breasted roller. Driving into the hills we passed zebra and bushbuck grazing in the long grass. We also spotted a common eland, the largest antelope in the world, and a black mamba, the most dangerous snake on Earth.

“They can jump into cars,” said Amos, promptly winding up the window.

A spectacular sight awaited us at the shore of Lake Ihema, in the parks’ southeastern corner, when a lone bull elephant emerged from a dip in the water. Suddenly there were dozens more: elephants of all ages, ambling through the vegetation, grazing on the greenery.

We hopped aboard a small skiff at a nearby pontoon and continued our safari on the lake. This gave us the best views of Akagera’s vociferous hippos, which poked their heads above the water and let out enormous groans before disappearing below the surface again.

Our skipper, Evady, manoeuvred the boat into the nearby mangroves. He stopped and pointed. “Can you see it?” he whispered. “There’s a crocodile.”

I edged towards the bow and stared into the mangroves. I couldn’t see it. And then it moved, or rather, charged, towards us; a menacing, 2.5m-long croc with teeth like sabres. I recoiled. “Yep, I see it.”

As the day matured, we headed to the Ruzizi Tented Lodge for sundown. Overlooking Lake Ihema, the 20-bed eco-camp opened in 2012 and is the first lodge of its kind in Rwanda. Run by the Akagera Management Company, a joint venture between African Parks and the Rwandan government, profits from the property go towards managing the park.

Here I met Jes Gruner, Akagera’s park manager, who was delighted I had seen so much wildlife.

“In another 10 years, I think there would have been nothing here,” he said, contemplating what might have been had the government not resettled refugees and appointed African Parks to manage Akagera.

But they did, and now the park is preparing to have the full Big Five again. The wheels are turning slowly, said Gruner – there are many hoops to jump through when moving endangered species – but lions are are scheduled for release this week and rhinos sometime in 2016. They will join the rest of the Big Five, which clung on even in the park’s darkest hour.

There is every reason to be confident in the government’s ability to develop a sustainable tourism industry in Akagera: its advancement of gorilla tourism in northern Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is regarded as one of the most successful conservation projects in Africa. Like Volcanoes, Akagera is also donating 5% of all tourism revenue to local communities. That money will fund schools, hospitals and farming cooperatives, making conservation pay for everyone.  

“Rwanda is a progressive country,” remarked Gruner, as weaverbirds sang in nearby trees. “And in a way Rwanda’s story is Akagera’s story: it went to the pits, but now it’s thriving.”