Anyone who has experienced the thrill of the Kwita Izina ceremony will understand the special place the mountain gorilla has in Rwanda.
The event, which has over the years taken the feel of an annual festival, borrows from a cultural-naming tradition of newborns, in which baby gorillas born in the preceding year are given names.
If it won’t be too much of a stretch come to think of it, it somewhat evokes the loving gesture the world was treated to with the surprise presentation of the birthday gift to celebrate the popular American comedian Ellen DeGeneres’ 60th birthday. I’ll revert to it in a moment.
And yet the pomp and drama of the naming ceremony at once captures similar pride in one of the nation’s most prized tourist attractions, and the optimism in the will to conservation that casts a light on a primate whose various sub-species are under assault from conflict, habitat encroachment and hunting.
Though still meagre in number at the current total estimate of 880 and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, only the mountain gorilla subspecies has been registering a steady increase with the majority being in Rwanda. It
The subspecies is part of the eastern gorilla found in the Virunga range of mountains straddling the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The other subspecies in the area is the eastern lowland gorilla found only in the rain forests of eastern DRC that was thought to have numbered 17,000 in the 1990s, but whose numbers were discovered to have “crushed” to less than 4,000.
The other group is the western gorilla, comprising of the rare Cross River gorilla found in a small area of highland forest on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria and numbering at only around 250 to 300. The other sub-species is the elusive, though more widespread western lowland gorilla estimated at around 100,000 and inhabiting some of Africa’s densest and most remote rainforests in the Congo basin, with the forests of Congo (Brazzaville) thought to harbour the major population.
It is in the diversity of this majestic primate of which our knowledge has grown, mainly drawing from the legacy of the world famous Dian Fossey working from the Karisoke Research Centre she had founded in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park before her tragic demise in 1985.
The subsequent establishment of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International furthered her conservation work in the protection and study of gorillas and their habitats on the continent.
And thus, somewhat evoking the spirit of Kwita Izina, it is owing to this same legacy that fans of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the humour-filled American talk show named after its host the world recently got to know of the boost to gorilla conservation in the form of a birthday present.
It will be long before the world forgets how the comedienne’s wife popped on the show to surprise Ellen in celebration her 60th birthday with a well chosen present to set up a permanent campus at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda, which will also be the first initiative of The Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund.
Picked by news media internationally, the birthday present made for a major public relations stunt that not only served to commemorate a loving moment, but will endure in the minds of many even as it will lure the undecided tourist to visit the primate in its natural habitat in Rwanda.
It is due to the same allure of the silverback and concern for its habitat that, as will also be recalled, the Rwanda Development Board received 27.8 hectares last month from the African Wildlife Fund (AWF) to be added to the 16,000-hectare Volcanoes National Park.
Initially acquired by the Serena Group of Hotels to put up a tourist resort, there was a change of heart with the realisation that the change of the land use risked exposing the primates to health and other social challenges posed by increased human activity. The land offered a buffer zone between the park and the surrounding farms.
It is this concern that informed the AWF to purchase the land from the hotel group to avoid breaching the buffer.
Other than the gorillas, the Volcanoes National Park is home to the golden monkey, elephants, buffalos, spotted hyenas, bush bucks and black-fronted duikers.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.