The baby they call Dreams

Why the naming of 24 baby gorillias is good news for one of the world's most endangered species.
Baby gorillas’ names at the Kwita Izina ceremony in Rwanda are chosen based on the circumstances of their birth, and what hopes the world has for it. Twenty-four  were born this past year. Rwanda Development Board
Baby gorillas’ names at the Kwita Izina ceremony in Rwanda are chosen based on the circumstances of their birth, and what hopes the world has for it. Twenty-four were born this past year. Rwanda Development Board

Kwita Izina, Rwanda’s naming ceremony for newborn mountain gorillas, has become an annual event. This year’s good news is that there are 24 babies being introduced, a record number since it became an international event.

Sitting close to his mother, Inzozi, with his bushy fur and brown and gold eyes, turns and looks curiously at the camera. He then pauses, almost mesmerised, his eyes dreamy, inspiring his name, which translates to Dreams.

What’s in a name? In this case an identity, hope for the future and a story.

Born on November 10, 2013, this Rwandan mountain gorilla is one of more than 160 to be given a new name and a new chance in life in the past decade, after the species was pushed to the brink of extinction.

Naming newborn mountain gorillas has become an annual ceremony in Rwanda known as Kwita Izina. Other names include Isange (Welcome), Ndengera (Protect me) and Kundurwanda (Love Rwanda). Each name is based on the baby’s personal story, the circumstances of their birth or their character, and what hopes the world has for it.

At this year’s ceremony, early next month, 24 baby gorillas will be introduced, a record number since Kwita Izina officially began a decade ago – six more than last year. It is a rare piece of good news in African wildlife conservation and all the more so in a country whose name was once synonymous with the genocide of its human population.

Gorillas are one of the four species of great apes, or hominidae, whose DNA makes them the closest living relatives to humans. The other three are chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans.

Unlike their portrayal in popular fiction, mountain gorillas are nothing like King Kong. They are gentle giants – shy, retiring and protective of their closely knit family groups.

“Gorilla naming is derived from the Rwandan culture of celebrating giving a name to a newborn,” says ambassador Yamina Karitanyi, chief tourism officer at the Rwanda Development Board, the organisation that runs the Kwita Izina.

“During the early stages of gorilla monitoring in the 1980s, gorilla naming was taking place at the community level among the researchers and rangers who lived nearby and monitored the endangered species.

“In 2005, along with our national programme to create awareness of gorillas, we created a uniquely Rwandan event around the concept.”

The first babies to be given names in public were rare twins from the Susa group – Byishimo (Happiness) and Impano (Gift) – by the Rwandan president Paul Kagame and his wife, Jeannette.

With about 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, every one born is a cause for celebration. The animals only live in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, with a 2010 census recording 480 in the Virunga Massif and 400 in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

The ceremony is also another way for Rwanda to restore its former image as the Switzerland of Africa by focusing on the tourist appeal of its natural attractions.

That image was destroyed in just 100 days in 1994, when ethnic violence caused up to one million Rwandans to be killed, mostly from the minority Tutsi, at the hands of extremists from the majority Hutu.

In recent years, Rwanda has worked hard to put this terrible legacy behind it, using its landscape and wildlife along with ancient traditions and legends to reintroduce the country to the world. “Ruganzu, the legendary Rwandan king, is said to have been endowed with supernatural power, which made him capable to move through hills and waters,” explains Ms Karitanyi.

“He could remove or displace a hill and with his bow, throw an arrow and create a way through a huge mountain. Most of the marks engraved on rocks here are said to be his foot or fingerprints.”

Legend also says that the hills and mountains in Rwanda are the work of Ngunda, a giant who also cultivated the land.

Like the others, this year’s Kwita Izina celebration will be held in Kinigi in the foothills of northern Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. This year’s theme, Conserving Now and For the Future, will also conduct a new general census of the gorilla population in the Virunga Massif.

The 2010 census showed that the gorilla population registered a 26.3 per cent growth since 2003. Since the event was first held, about 160 newborn gorillas have been named, making it easier to track and protect them. “They are named by different people, typically involved in the tourism and conservation industry,” says Ms Karitanyi.

“Gorilla naming is an important part of Rwanda’s conservation efforts and serves to play a significant role in the monitoring of each individual gorilla in their habitat and with their families and raises awareness about their status,” she says.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are listed as “critically endangered”, much of it the result of habit destruction and poaching. Baby gorillas can sell for more than US$2,000 (Dh7,340) on the black market. Their plight was brought to the world by Dian Fossey, an American zoologist who worked with the animals from the 1960s. In December 1985, Fossey was murdered – hacked to death, presumably by poachers, at her Rwandan forest camp. Her killers were never found.

In the 1980s, the mountain gorilla population had dwindled to 250 because of aggressive poaching, disease and habitat loss by encroaching human settlement.

Fossey told her story in the book Gorillas in the Mist, published in 1983, which was adapted for a film starring Sigourney Weaver. In the book, Fossey describes meeting the big gentle primates: “It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behaviour that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes.”

Her legacy lives on through The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, of which Weaver is an honorary chairwoman. The fund’s programmes are dedicated to gorilla conservation, such as adopting gorillas online, trekking, meeting Fossey’s mountain gorillas and helping people who live near those habitats in Rwanda and the DRC.

But besides honouring gorillas, the week of Kwita Izina includes other celebrations, such as Inka z’u Rwanda next week – a ceremony honouring cows and their place in the Rwandan tradition. “Activities will include workshops, exhibiting cow products, parading the cows, and awarding the herders,” says Ms Karitanyi.

It is all organised by the Rural Environment and Development Organisation (REDO), an NGO that works with communities around the parks to conserve the environment and works with them to create income generating projects. Other events include a conservation forum, a photo exhibition, as well as a night of cultural immersion, Igitaramo, on the eve of the event which includes Rwandan traditional dances, storytelling and cultural performances.

Besides the mountain gorillas, and the cows, Ms Karitanyi says Rwanda has more than 525 bird species, before listing other animals that visitors might encounter. “Some of the animals encountered during safari include lions, buffalo, elephant, zebra, giraffe, leopards, serval cats, hyenas, mongooses, genets, side-striped jackals and a variety of antelope. As well as primate populations including olive baboons, vervet monkeys, bush babies and silver monkeys,” she says. “The Akagera River is home to one of the highest concentrations of hippopotamus in Africa as well as the Nile crocodile.”

About 400 guests from all over the world are expected at this year’s naming ceremony. Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, the Hollywood actor Isaiah Washington and Nigerian film star Ramsey Tokunbo Nouah have all attended past ceremonies.

The event is now considered one of Rwanda’s most important achievements on the path to reconstruction, with the launch this year of the Kwita Izina awards to recognise local conservationists for their achievements and contributions to the wildlife preservation and tourism. 

“Together, we have worked with rangers, guides, conservation groups and local communities to take proactive steps to restore and enhance the habitat of not only the gorillas but of other wild life as well,” says Ms Karitanyi.

Published: August 17, 2015 04:00 AM


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