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Tourism and community involvement helps endangered mountain gorillas beat survival odds.
KINIGI, Rwanda — What do you name a baby gorilla?
It’s a Saturday morning at the headquarters of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and thousands of people have gathered for what’s become a celebrated national pastime: the naming of baby mountain gorillas.
In a country home to roughly a third of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas, the annual event, known as “Kwita Izina,” is a celebrity-laden affair designed to draw attention to global awareness of biodiversity and conservation.
This year the sixth annual baby naming event was held on June 5 and featured performances by traditional dancers and pop artists. Featured guests, including “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle and United Nations Environmental Program Executive Director Achim Steiner, name 14 infant gorillas, bestowing Kinyarwanda-language monikers such as "Igihembo" (Prize), "Ubuhamya" (Testimony) and "Umurage" (Legacy).
The overwhelming crowd favorite, foreshadowing the popularity of Shakira’s World Cup anthem, is the name announced by acclaimed Chinese wildlife photographer Luo Hong: “Waka Waka,” or “Do It” in Cameroon’s Fang language.
All this must be a curious spectacle to Agasha, a 400-pound mountain gorilla, who sits a few miles away inside a rain-soaked forest, munching on a breakfast of bamboo, thistles and wild celery.
As the lone adult male — or silverback — among a group of some two-dozen primates, Agasha is used to humans — though in much smaller numbers. For an hour each day he puts up with the stares and snapping cameras of a group of up to eight tourists, who pay $500 each to pry into his mountainside existence. To Agasha, they may be a nuisance. Yet, like the participants of the “Kwita Izina” ceremony, they also play a crucial role in his survival.
Gorillas, faced with poaching and loss of habitat, have declined substantially in number over the last two decades and may disappear within 10 to 15 years from most of their present range in central Africa, according to a recent report by the U.N. Environmental Program.
Mountain gorillas like Agasha, however, may yet avoid that cruel fate. Numbering just 700, split between distinct populations in the Virunga Mountains and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, they make up less than 1 percent of the world’s gorilla population. Yet they are the only one of the four gorilla sub-species whose numbers are not declining, according to the report.
In the Virunga Mountains, a range shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, their population increased from 250 in 1981 to 380 in 2003, the time of the last gorilla census. A new census is to be released this year, and experts predict a further rise.
“We still have a very small number in total,” said Antoine Mudakikwa, a veterinarian with the Rwanda Development Board. “But we continue to see an increased number of mountain gorillas in the Virungas.”
In Rwanda, home to more than half of the Virunga primates, this success has been achieved through effective anti-poaching patrols as well as a government-led approach that integrates tourism and conservation.
Though virtually nonexistent in the decade following the 1994 genocide, tourism is now Rwanda’s top source of foreign exchange. This year, the Rwanda Development Board estimates the country will host 750,000 visitors, including more than 16,000 who will undertake a strenuous, rain-soaked day of gorilla tracking.
This gorilla-derived revenue has been a boon for Rwanda’s development as well as its efforts to promote conservation.
One of the world’s most densely populated countries, Rwanda retains only relic patches of the tropical forest that once covered much of its territory. Preserving what remains, including the habitats of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other wildlife, has been a top priority of President Paul Kagame’s government, and has been accomplished by working closely with those living at the forest fringes.
In the Virungas, most rangers, guides and porters are drawn from villages surrounding Volcanoes National Park. Since 2005, the Rwandan government has donated 5 percent of revenue generated in its three national parks to projects addressing the needs of adjacent communities, including schools, health facilities and water infrastructure.
This has helped changed the attitude of locals long aggrieved for being prevented from clearing farm plots or burning wood for charcoal in protected areas, according to Mudakikwa.
“Before, communities could not understand why they could not use this land, especially because of the scarcity of land in Rwanda,” said Mudakikwa. “People did not really get a direct benefit from tourism. Now it is very different, though we still have a long way to go to benefit all the people around the parks.”
Like Mudakikwa, most experts believe the tourism-based conservation model is working, despite past warnings from prominent gorilla experts. Dian Fossey, the legendary primatologist and author of the acclaimed book "Gorillas in the Mist," was long a vocal opponent of gorilla tourism, arguing that human-borne diseases could potentially wipe out entire primate populations. Because of such concerns, gorilla groups designated for tourism are limited to one hour of human interaction per day, and so far serious outbreaks have been avoided.
“I don’t think tourism has been a detriment like Dian predicted,” said Jode Garbe, managing director of the non-profit Rwanda Wildlife Sanctuary and longtime conservationist in Rwanda. “Most tourists that come in are pretty darn healthy. And the gorillas are way hardier than we gave them credit for.”
Not quite hardy enough, though, to take part in this year’s Kwita Izina festivities. As the sixth annual naming ceremony pushes on into the misty Virunga afternoon, children in gorilla suits stand in for the infants of honor so as not to over-stress the actual primates.
“We celebrate the birth of baby gorillas because every birth is an important step towards achieving our vision to see the mountain gorillas move from being one of the world’s most endangered species to being some of the world’s best protected animals,” John Gara, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, told the crowd.
Agasha would likely appreciate such remarks — despite the daily barrage of humans interrupting his breakfast.