This year’s Kwita Izina ceremony started early, on July 26, to be precise. It brought together two countries on two continents, Rwanda and Britain, Europe and Africa, respectively. And it was worth it, for the sheer joy of enabling veteran naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough to name 2016’s addition to the population of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.
For any Rwandan who might have been living in a hermit’s cave for the last two decades, the annual Kwita Izina ceremony is a conservation initiative, where individuals who have made a significant contribution to the protection of wildlife, the mountain gorilla in particular, are invited to name each year’s new born gorilla. The ceremony borrows from the custom in Rwandan culture, when family and friends come together to name a new born child.
Sir David first visited Rwanda’s mountain gorillas in 1978, a meeting that was captured in what has now become a classic of wildlife documentary filming. Now, in his 90th year, Sir David still regards the encounter as an “experience of a lifetime.” And certainly no one who saw the film then, or who sees it now, is likely to forget Sir David’s now famous characteristic whisper, when filming his animal subjects in close proximity.
“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know, we are so similar. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell is so similar to ours that we see the world in the same way they do.”
“Now”, he related to a small, invited audience of selected individuals gathered in Rwanda House, the Rwanda High Commission in London, with his usual energetic enthusiasm, “I get to name my own baby gorilla, and I have called him.... To those of you who might not know, it means...” the name has to remain a secret until September, or else the surprise will be ruined, as in there won’t be one.
The Kwita Izina ceremony is of course held in September of each year, in Rwanda, and it had been hoped that Sir David would travel to Rwanda to name the gorilla, but was prevented from doing so by other commitments.
Determined to recognise Sir David’s contribution in the campaign to protect these still endangered animals, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) which works to protect species and habitats, together with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) worked with the Rwanda High Commission to arrange the naming ceremony in London. If the Knight could not get to the Mountain Gorilla, the Mountain Gorilla would come to the Knight.
Sir David has been a member of FFI for over half a century and still serves as its Vice-President. The ceremony was filmed at the Rwanda High Commission, and will be unveiled in September.
There is something profoundly moving about the Kwita Izina ceremony. It is about human beings using a ceremony that normally celebrates their own new life, to try and halt the extinction of another species, at the hands of human beings.
And it is particularly apposite to have Sir David Attenborough play a central role in such a ceremony. In his 1978 film with the Mountain gorillas, his “experience of a lifetime” was tinged with a sadness he shared with the viewers, that the magnificent animals which so moved him, faced extinction.
As he reminded his audience in London, “In 1978, there were only 400 mountain gorillas left, now there are more than 800.” For a man who has spent much of his life campaigning for the conservation of the natural world, what could be a better gift for his 90th birthday, than to know that the animals for whose existence he feared, were now thriving, and may well outlive all those who were hunting them to extinction.
In her welcoming remarks, the Rwanda High Commissioner, Yamina Karitanyi, expressed her regret that it would not be possible to have Sir David in Rwanda, but, nevertheless said how delighted she was that he was able to perform the ceremony, albeit long distance. “In Rwandan culture we celebrate elder legends like you, and so we celebrate you, thank you, and a very warm welcome.”
She also thanked the many individuals and NGOs, especially FFI, who continue to support Rwanda to implement conservation policies.
“The Government of Rwanda understands very well that you cannot defeat poaching with guns,” she said. “It has to be defeated by engaging with local communities many of whom are driven into the crime of poaching by desperation.”
She pointed to the Rwanda government’s five per cent revenue scheme, which guarantees five percent of tourism receipts from national parks to local communities. Through local government, the local community themselves decide on where the investment is most needed, be it schools, clinics, or clean water. Such policies have turned many former poachers and would be poachers into game keepers.
It is no doubt that it would have been a special moment to reunite Sir David with the mountain gorillas, under much happier circumstances. But it is not altogether inappropriate that the naming ceremony in which he features is on film.
Because he has been such a towering advocate for the natural world, it is often forgotten that though a naturalist, he is in fact a distinguished broadcaster and programme maker. As a television executive he pioneered some of British television’s most iconic programmes, some like Monty Python, nothing at all to do with nature and conservation.
His greatest achievement however is in the development and advancement of the way the natural world, especially wildlife is filmed. He is rightly regarded as the father of modern nature documentary. His words on the subject are synonymous with wisdom and technical mastery, as are his every utterance on nature conservation. He is so universally loved and respected in Britain, that he is one of a select few individuals who are dubbed “a national treasure” by the public.
“Conservation is never complete. You have to keep at it. The Rwanda government is showing an example to the world, but, in conservation, as you solve one problem, another one presents itself. It is wonderful that the numbers of gorillas are increasing, but, the problem is now how to increase their natural habitat.” A challenge, wrapped in a compliment, from someone who may yet be claimed by more of the world, as their treasure.