Yesterday’s gorilla naming ceremony was the 12th since the inaugural event in 2005. The annual tourism flagship event is best known as Kwita Izina, Kinyarwanda for ‘naming’, and is borrowed from centuries-long tradition of naming a newborn in Rwandan society.
The introduction of the gorilla naming ceremony has seen the ritual shared between Rwandan citizens and the rare primates, that have a lot in common with humans with the two considered to be cousins.
Like humans, gorillas have families.
Yesterday’s Kwita Izina event was presided over by President Paul Kagame – at the foothill of the Virunga Mountains in Kinigi, Musanze District.
Kwita Izina, which has since grown in profile to become the country’s biggest event on the conservation calendar, attracts scores of international conservation icons.
Some of them have been champions of conservation for many years.
Dr José Kalpers is one of them.
The Australian has been part of this journey from the time it was being branded by many a “failed conservation” effort to the success story it is today.
Kalpers is a global expert in biodiversity conservation who worked in Rwanda for 30 years in the area of conservation, dating back to 1986.
This year he returned to Rwanda to celebrate conservation achievements and to participate in the 2016 Kwita Izina ceremony.
He says he is “marveled” at how Rwanda has turned around what was once “a far cry” conservation perspective, successfully giving it a “glamorous picture” that it boasts today.
“It all started in the summer of 1986, exactly 30 years ago,” Kalpers, says as he recalls his personal experience with Rwanda’s conservation story.
“I came here as a backpacker with my girlfriend of the time, with a very large backpack and a very small wallet. So small was the wallet that, in order to afford a visit to the gorillas – a permit was $75 at the time, still a large sum of money – and to be able to hire a small Suzuki to visit Akagera, we had to make a few sacrifices.”
Fulfillment of a childhood dream
Kapler’s managed to return a year later and worked for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Rwandan Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). He was then stationed at the Akagera National Park in the east of the country.
“Those first few years working at the coalface of conservation in Africa were an eye-opener: I was fulfilling my childhood dream of working with the mighty wildlife of Africa, but, on the other hand, I quickly realised that the context of conservation was a far cry from the naive and glamorous picture that I had in my mind before coming to Africa,” Kalpers said during the recently concluded Kwita Izina Conversation on Conservation forum in Kigali.
He recalls that back then reality was very harsh.
In essence, he narrates, wildlife and nature were indeed amazing and were absolutely worth the many documentaries he had seen about Africa, but he also realised that if a number of major and urgent challenges were not addressed, that unique biodiversity would be gone very quickly.
“The threats I could see were all driven by competition for access to natural resources…there was very little effort to engage with local leaders or communities around Akagera, no real effort to understand their needs, their socio-economic conditions, or to build something constructive in that space,” Keplars says.
He hastens to add that, the little income generated from tourism in Akagera at the time was all going straight into the coffers of the central government, with no single penny going back into the communities around the park
One of his former bosses at Akagera National Park—who had lived in Rwanda for 15 years then — even told him that Akagera would be wiped out by year 2000.
“There is no way that a country like Rwanda, with so much demographic pressure and so many development challenges, will want to keep such a big area just for the wildlife,” his boss told him then.
Keplars says that prediction has haunted him ever since, and was pretty much on his mind particularly in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
At some point, he left Rwanda briefly, to work in the Garamba National Park in the then Zaïre (now DR Congo), only to return to Rwanda in 1991 — this time to start the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
His task was to initiate a regional, transboundary programme between Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda.
Of course the actual situation wasn’t easy: the border between Rwanda and Uganda was closed, the (liberation) war had started in the Volcanoes in January 1991, there were armed groups almost everywhere, and anti-personal mines and booby traps in the forest.’’
“I was initially based in Gisenyi, travelling by road to hold meetings with park wardens and directors of wildlife agencies across the three countries. There were challenges, but we were still slowly building the foundations of what would later become a great conservation story in Africa,” he recalls.
Keplars also recalls that during those years there was a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded project that was supporting the newly created MINETO.
They had commissioned a study that was looking at the balance between population, environment and development in Rwanda.
The study would establish that, with the trend observed at the time and based on factors such as rates of deforestation, demographic pressure, erosion and soil maps, all natural areas would “disappear” from Rwanda in the next 25-30 years.
And then during the Genocide, conservation activities were of course halted.
The return of conservation
In the months that followed the end of the Genocide, Rwanda slowly started to rebuild some capacity to address the most urgent threats.
Keplars was part of the first meetings that came up with an emergency plan for the rehabilitation of ORTPN and the protected areas of Rwanda.
He says it took a few more years to have a better clarity of what was happening, such as the insurgency attacks in the gorilla habitat, the Volcanoes region (1997-1998); in Akagera, the park was ‘invaded’ by livestock returning mainly from Uganda; lions were poisoned and exterminated; poaching was rampant; while in Nyungwe, there were some plans floated to clear a part of the forest to make way for farming activities.
“Thus, at the end of the 1990s and at the turn of the 21st century the situation for conservation in Rwanda was pretty bleak. It took a few years, but the Government started to deliver some strong political messages that biodiversity conservation would be a key priority for Rwanda.”
Akagera National Park was officially regazetted in 1997, while the Akagera hotel was completely refurbished and handed over to a private management company in 2002.
And, around the Volcanoes national park several investors started building hotels and lodges; it was back to business for the mountain gorillas, the golden monkeys and other attractions.
When the government launched its Vision 2020, it made clear tourism, conservation and environment were given an important place in the country’s development agenda.
Nyungwe was officially made a national park in 2004.
However, for Keplars, beyond these political commitments and policies, the most important shift came in 2003 when ORTPN was restructured from an old-fashioned and cumbersome entity into a modern, efficient agency, initially combining tourism and conservation.
Later, ORTPN was further restructured and merged with several other parastatals to form present-day Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
“Suddenly there was strong leadership and strong accountability, all positions within the structure were advertised and new staff came onboard to join the few remaining ‘old hands’. I had the privilege to be a technical advisor to the new organisation and I can say without a doubt that those 18 months I spent there were the most inspiring and satisfactory moments of my entire career,” says the Australian conservationist.
“I could go on with more success stories, such as Nyungwe, the Kitabi College of Conservation and Environmental Management, and what about Kwita Izina, an amazing initiative bringing together all sections of Rwandan society and the international community.”
Keplars is one of the 22 people who were due to name a newborn gorilla at the foot of Virunga mountain, the country’s natural habitat for the rare mountain gorillas in Kinigi.
Summarising his lessons from Rwanda’s conservation story, he says, “Resilience is an important factor, governance is a critical one in terms of planning for the future, and partnerships in is conservation critical.
“The doomsayers who were announcing an environmental collapse in Rwanda 20 or 30 years ago, were all wrong in their predictions; the ecosystems have been preserved, some species have not only survived but are even thriving, others need a little help like through reintroductions, but overall all survived. Survival has become resilience.
“Resilience has become revival. Like so many facets of the Rwandan society, conservation has gone through major transformation in the past 15 years,” Keplars says.
Following yesterday’s event at which 22 baby gorillas were named, a total of 238 gorillas have been named since 2015, with the primates’ population in Rwanda raising to well over 400.
Central to the national efforts to conserve gorillas and other wildlife species is the revenue-sharing scheme, under which 5 per cent of the tourism revenue has been reinvested in communities around national parks, with RDB saying that over Rwf2.6 billion has been spent on nearly 500 community projects around national parks since 2005.
The scheme is credited with helping to address human-wildlife conflict and turning many former poachers into park rangers having realised firsthand the benefits tourism and conservation.