One of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, Rwanda’s mountain gorillas were on the brink of extinction 50 years ago, but thanks to efforts from conservationists including Dian Fossey, they’re now thriving. Emma Gregg reports from this year’s Kwita Izina, Rwanda’s annual gorilla-naming ceremony, before heading into the wild to see the gorillas for herself.
“All you young people in the audience: you are the future of conservation!” There’s a mighty cheer and images of the crowd, grinning and waving flags, flash up on the big screens dotted around the festival site.
With traditional mushanana robes draped over her white T-shirt, Tara Stoinski, President of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, beams at everyone. The stage is adorned with a mountain gorilla on all fours, 15m high at the shoulder. Woven from bamboo, the Rwandan gorillas’ favourite food, it was two weeks in the making.
I’m attending Rwanda’s Kwita Izina, a traditional baby-naming ceremony with a twist.
For almost 100 years, a succession of wildlife rangers, trackers and researchers have been as good as family to the gorillas which munch on bamboo and wild celery in the misty forests of Volcanoes National Park.
Every individual is recognisable by its noseprint and demeanour and all but the tiniest infants have names. With fewer than 900 mountain gorillas in the wild and none in captivity, every new birth is something to celebrate, so an annual kwita izina is held in their honour.
“Today, I have the huge honour of naming an infant in Titus’ group”, continues Stoinski. “Titus was one of the most famous gorillas studied by Dian Fossey. He had an entire TV show made about him and even a beer named after him.”
“I will name one of his granddaughters. What an incredible legacy for Dian Fossey, the Karisoke trackers and Rwanda.”
The chosen name is “Macibiri”, Kinyarwanda for girl. It’s a potent tribute to Fossey, the Californian zoologist who founded Rwanda’s Karisoke Research Center in September 1967, exactly 50 years ago. She devoted almost two decades of her life to studying mountain gorillas.
One of her local nicknames was Nyiramacibiri: the girl from somewhere else.
Kwita Izina used to be low-key, but in 2005, with the gorilla population expanding at an encouraging pace, the time seemed right to invite the public. It’s now a massive annual celebration of gorilla conservation and sustainable tourism, attracting crowds over 30,000 strong. In its first 12 years, 239 gorillas were named.
To the disappointment of some, perhaps, the gorillas themselves don’t attend the party. Nonetheless, we feel their presence. The natural backdrop to the grassy site is the chain of volcanoes where apes, monkeys and forest elephants rule, their peaks reminiscent of gorilla faces in silhouette.
Speaking on the gorillas’ behalf are a panel of wildlife and conservation advocates including Stoinski, who worked with Fossey for 13 years and is now the Fossey Fund’s Chief Scientific Officer.
One by one, they announce the names of 14 babies born within the last 18 months. Each namer also praises Rwanda’s natural heritage or pays tribute to Paul Kagame, the country’s president since 2000, for valuing conservation and supporting the thriving ecotourism industry which funds it.
Kagame takes the acclaim graciously. Earlier, he kept everyone waiting, but nobody seemed to mind; with music from Kigali-born gangster rapper Jay Polly and dance from an intore troupe in mane-like headdresses, there was plenty to keep us entertained.
When he arrived at last, striding around the arena to work the crowd like a slightly taller, slightly older Obama, there was no doubting his popularity and charisma.
Of the high-profile organisations taking part, it’s undoubtedly the Fossey Fund which has the biggest presence.
The 50th anniversary of the Karisoke Research Center is a significant milestone: it’s the longest-running gorilla research and conservation project in the world.
“We provide daily protection to gorilla groups, conduct anti-poaching patrols and collect scientific data”, says Stoinski.
“Our motto is ‘Helping People, Saving Gorillas’, because for conservation to work, we must ensure that both gorillas and people are thriving.”
Crucially, they encourage young people to become conservation biologists through university scholarships and internships.
Fossey was opposed to gorilla tourism, fearing it would expose gorillas to poaching and human infections. However, it’s now accepted that the sheer volume of money it raises outweighs the risks.
When the Rwandan Development Board doubled the price of gorilla tracking from US$750 to US$1500 in May 2017, it shrugged off accusations of elitism, claiming the extra funds were essential to its efforts in reforesting the park’s buffer zone and supporting rural communities.
“We’re confident that the price rise won’t reduce demand”, Clare Akamanzi of RDB tells me later.
With gorilla numbers growing, the protected forests of the Virunga Massif – comprising Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and part of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park – are increasingly under pressure.
Fossey Foundation researchers are observing more clashes between groups than ever before, and some gorillas make forays over the park wall into the adjoining fields, where they’re vulnerable to infection and injury.
“Our focus now is on expanding the gorilla habitat”, says Belise Kaliza of RDB. Luxury conservation safari operator Wilderness Safaris is leading the charge with a major tree-planting project near its newest property, Bisate Lodge.
The next day, we hope to encounter some gorillas face to face. Our target is the Susa Group, whose parents were habituated by Fossey herself.
In 1985, when Fossey was murdered (an unsolved crime to this day), Kurira, now the dominant silverback, was just four years old. In the 1990s, his family became the first which tourists could visit.
As we stride along a grassy track between hand-tended potato and bean fields, I ask Oliver Mutiyimana, who has been leading gorilla treks for more than 15 years, where exactly the Susa Group’s territory lies.
“All the way across”, he says, indicating a sweep of dense bamboo and mixed rainforest on the slopes of Mount Karisimbi.
Our group is one of the toughest to track; their range is so vast that it takes well over three hours to reach them from the park headquarters, travelling first by 4WD, then on foot. But all it takes is a glimpse of a thick black coat for our fatigue to melt away.
“Come this way”, says Oliver. “Meet Inyange.”
And there he is: a bright-eyed bundle of fur, practising his parallel-bar skills on a couple of fallen bamboo stems. Born in September 2016, he’s one of the babies whose naming we’ve just witnessed.
When our precious hour with the gorillas is up and, elated, we begin our descent, snatches of song float up from the farms below, reminding us that gorillas and humans live cheek-by-jowl.
As if in response, there’s a throaty bark from Kurira. And as the sound reverberates through the trees, I make a silent wish that little Inyange, just like his father, will enjoy a long, magnificent life.