By Rupi Mangat

A ten-meter-tall mountain gorilla made from 872 bamboo stalks looms on the foothills of Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains of northwestern Rwanda that forms a contiguous chain with Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.

It’s the stage setting for the annual Kwita Izina – the Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) baby naming ceremony that the world first heard of when the German explorer Captain Robert von Beringe saw them on the volcanic mountains of the Virungas on October 17, 1902.

Listed as Critically Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — that is one step away from becoming extinct — Rwanda’s goal is to have the Mountain gorilla down-listed in the near future as numbers of the great apes continue to rise – from 400 four decades ago to 880 today.

Kwita Izina 2016

Twenty-two babies from 12 families were named at the annual Kwita Izina gorilla baby naming ceremony on 2 September 2016 bringing the count to 238 since the first Kwita Izina in 2005.

At the colourful morning ceremony attended by thousands of Rwandese from the foothills of the national park, conservationists, tourists and the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a special message was delivered by Sir David Attenborough. “It shows that a lot can be done if you really care,” said the famous conservationist.

It’s a long cry from the time he saw his first Mountain gorillas four decades ago when visiting the legendary Dian Fossey in her camp on the mountain. Fossey who arrived in 1967, set up the Karisoke Research Centre between Karisimbi and Visoke volcanoes to study the apes. For the next 18 years, she spent most of her time in the park. She is widely credited with saving the gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community. 

At that time, the forests were threatened and poaching rife. The outside world knew virtually nothing of the Mountain gorillas until she made the cover of National Geographic magazine in January 1970 and penned her book Gorillas in the Mist which was made into a Hollywood movie.

Fossey’s forays with the Mountain gorillas began when Dr Louis Leakey — Kenya’s legendary ‘ paleoanthropologist and archaeologist — commissioned her to study them, convinced that fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats was key to understanding human evolution. He chose three female researchers, Jane GoodallDian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas, calling them The Trimates.

Goodall and Galdikas continue their work on the primates – Goodall with the chimpanzees in Uganda and Galdikas with the orang-utans in Borneo.

But for Fossey things were tough living in the high and inaccessible mountains. She made many enemies with poachers and corrupt government officials including European circus owners’ intent on having performing gorillas or as exotic pets. To date, no gorilla has survived in captivity and adults will fight to the end to save their young. On 26 December 1985 Fossey aged 53 was found brutally murdered in her camp — a murder that remains unsolved.

Conservation is Life

The survival of the Mountain gorillas seemed doomed as Rwanda spiralled into civil war and the 1994 genocide.

In the days leading up to Kwita Izina 2016, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) organized a series of talks between leading wildlife personalities, government officials and the public  dubbed ‘Conversation in Conservation’ at the Kigali Convention and Exhibition Village.

“Mountain gorillas are thriving in Rwanda thanks to government efforts and her partners,” stated Francis Gatare the Chief Executive Officer of RDB. With 20 per cent of Rwanda’s territory declared protected area, he said that the country’s tourism is focussed on eco-tourism and sustainability with communities fully involved. Five per cent of all tourism revenue is directed into community projects identified by the people such as schools, hospitals, infrastructure and more.

A vital component of saving the gorillas includes the transboundary agreement between the three countries of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that straddle the Virunga volcanic mountains with joint patrols, awareness-raising and revenue-sharing in some areas.

“Rwanda’s Vision 2020 (the blueprint for economic development) is green growth and a climate-resilient economy,” said Anastase Murekezi, the country’s prime minister. He said that the main purpose of conservation is protecting nature, its habitats and biodiversity and that Africa’s wildlife is its golden opportunity for development.

Threats to the Great Apes

However, in the face of development and increasing human population, challenges such as food security and infrastructure, including mining for rare minerals and illegal trafficking in wildlife have to be addressed.

“We have to put aside our selfish interests and give our best solutions and ideas to help the continent move ahead,” he said.

“Habitat loss, especially in the DRC is still the key issue for the mountain gorillas,” reveals Karl Ammann, conservationist and wildlife photographer who brought to light the plight of the great apes in recent times which was seen as exaggerated until his book — ‘Gorillas’ —  published in 1997 and others – appeared. He tells of continued poaching for babies of the gorillas with a lot of habitat being invaded and lost. “Eastern Lowland gorillas are the closest relative of the Mountain Gorilla. There have been some exports of babies but in most cases they do not survive long even if they make it to locations outside Africa,” he says.

Four of the six great apes – Eastern Gorilla, Western Gorilla, Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan – are now listed as Critically Endangered, whilst the Chimpanzee and Bonobo are listed as Endangered, according to the latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species released at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in September 2016.

The Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei)  – the largest living primate – is made up of two subspecies — Grauer’s Gorilla (G. b. graueri) and the Mountain Gorilla (G. b. beringei). A devastating population decline of more than 70 per cent in 20 years shows numbers to be fewer than 5,000. Grauer’s Gorilla (G. b. graueri) has lost 77 per cent of its population since 1994, declining from 16,900 individuals to 3,800 in 2015. Killing or capture of great apes is illegal; yet hunting represents the greatest threat to Grauer’s Gorillas.

The Mountain Gorilla (G. b. beringei) – is faring better.