Bisate, Rwanda

Celebrating Rwanda’s Baby Mountain Gorillas


Melissa Siebert


‘Kwita Izina’ means ‘to give a name’ in Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s national language), a long-honoured tradition of naming a child in the presence of friends and family – and now an annual tradition of naming the newest batch of baby mountain gorillas in the country’s Volcanoes National Park (VNP). Held virtually this year on 24 September, Kwita Izina coincides with World Gorilla Day, which marks the date in 1967 that primatologist Dian Fossey established the VNP’s Karisoke Research Center and helped save mountain gorillas from extinction.

The baby gorilla-naming ceremony celebrates an ongoing conservation success story and a renewed commitment to the gorillas, as well as to the communities surrounding the park, now themselves involved in protecting the gorillas and in sustainable development. Since its inauguration in 2005, the ceremony has named 352 baby gorillas, including the 24 this year.

‘In our culture, giving a name is a powerful act of love’, said Ariella Kageruka, Acting Chief Tourism Officer for the Rwanda Development Board, in the taped 17th Kwita Izina ceremony. ‘And a commitment to protect and nurture the child’s wellbeing. For the mountain gorillas being named today, we’re making the same commitment – to protect them and their habitat, today and into the future’.

Sixty years ago mountain gorillas were on the brink. Today their numbers have more than doubled, estimated at just over 1 000, making their home in the rainforests of the Virunga massif in Rwanda and the DRC, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Poaching has been mitigated largely by upgrading the livelihoods and infrastructure of communities around the VNP, mostly subsistence farmers. In many cases, former poachers and their families have become informed, ardent conservationists, some working as trackers or guides within the park. Much of the income from gorilla trekking permits – generally USD1 500, even for Rwandans – goes to local farmers to offset any wildlife damage to their fields (the local golden monkeys enjoy feeding off crops, especially the potato fields).

‘We protect our wildlife by investing in our people’, Kageruka said. Local communities protecting the gorillas in effect protect the other species, flora and fauna, living in the park, promoting biodiversity.

Each year the Rwanda Development Board invites a range of distinguished people from around the world – conservationists, scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, business executives, diplomats, and others – to help name the baby gorillas.

Among the meaningful names this year: Inkomezi (Inner Strength); Rinda (Preserve); Twirinde (Protection); Ingabire (Gift); Kabeho (Live Long).

Mountain gorillas are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing. To accommodate this growth, Volcanoes National Park is expanding, with reforestation efforts (like those of our Bisate Lodge) stretching its borders. Gorilla families typically share home ranges, but in certain areas of the park, those home ranges have become overcrowded.

Though removed from the ‘critically endangered’ list three years ago, mountain gorillas remain on the endangered list. Kwita Izima reminds us how precious they are, and how remarkable is spending just one hour in their presence. Our close relatives, sharing more than 98 percent of our DNA.

‘Live Long’, long live. May the 24 just-named newborns – and their families – thrive.

Written by Melissa Siebert

Gorilla photos by Suzi Eszterhas

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