In the 1990s, Rwanda was primarily associated with the catastrophic upheaval of its war and genocide. But for the past ten years, Rwanda has been making the news for other reasons: the conservation efforts to save the region’s mountain gorillas. In 2003, the government made official a celebration that Banyarwandas — Rwandanas — had been celebrating for decades: a naming ceremony for baby gorillas. Called Kwita Izina, which translates to “to give a name” and is a centuries-old tradition for naming human babies, the celebration highlights the nation’s efforts to save a highly endangered species and promotes Rwanda as a tourist destination.
At the 2013 event, celebrated on June 22 in Kinigi, 12 recently born baby mountain gorillas will receive their names. The theme for the year, according to head of Tourism and Conservation Rica Rwigamba, is “Celebrating Nature, Empowering Communities.” The series of events that tie into the naming ceremony is likely to include traditional dancing and the launch of community projects. Visitors and locals are also being invited to join a caravan from Kigali to Kinigi “and discover some of the country’s most beautiful sights and environmental wonders,” according to the official Kwita Izina website.
Just how endangered are mountain gorillas? According to the African Wildlife Foundation article, “Mountain gorilla“:
- Mountain Gorillas are critically endangered.
- There are less than 900 remaining. (Other sources estimate around 780.)
- They live in four national parks.
- Their life span is 40-50 years.
- War in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to threaten the habitat of mountain gorillas, despite conservation efforts being made in Rwanda.
In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts were made to capture mountain gorillas and breed them in captivity, but all of these efforts failed. Live babies could not survive in captivity, though the reasons why remain unclear. Mountain gorillas share between 97 and 98% of their DNA with humans.
In a 2011 article, “Rwandan gorillas back from brink; Annual festival names babies of still-rare species” for the Washington Times, Rwigamba explained to reporter Heather Murdock that “gorillas have served as the mainstay of the country’s tourism industry,which caters to high-end, eco-friendly visitors and collected $200 million in 2010.” According to other reports, $10 million of that total can be credited directly to gorillas. And viewing the gorillas is not cheap: a one-hour trekking permit costs around $500. And those figures do not include the price of travel and lodging. Only 56 permits are issued every day, and a family of gorillas is only allowed to see a maximum of 8 visitors on any given day.
The focus on getting the community involved in conserving the gorillas is “key to ensuring that conservation really work[s],” wrote Flora Kaitesi in her May 7, 2012 DW article, “Rwanda’s gorilla naming festival attracts thousands.” Kaitesi noted that of the three countries that share the region inhabited by mountain gorillas, only Rwanda has a festival devoted to the primates. Efforts of the nation to keep mountain gorillas as a part of their economy, and thus conserve them for their own benefit and for the benefit of the Rwandan people, have helped mountain gorillas maintain a stable population, despite their habitat being affected by strive in the DRC. The focus has also helped the Musanze District of Rwanda, where the gorillas live, “become the third most successful area in the country in the fight against poverty,” Kaitesi wrote.
As for the naming celebration itself, it has attracted celebrities including Prince Albert of Monaco, and select individuals, including Rwandan Prime Minister Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, who are even allowed to choose names for the baby gorillas. For more information about this year’s festivities, you can follow Kwita Izina on Facebook and on Twitter.
What would you name a gorilla?