18 June 2013

Rwanda Mountain Gorillas - We Name Them Because They Are Important

While gorillas are on the brink of being extinct in other African countries, Rwanda has given great importance to preserving Mountain Gorillas, and this comes along with a series of celebrations rooted in the African culture- the naming ceremonies- locally known as 'Kwita Izina'

When an African family has a new born baby, the naming ceremony is one of the initial communal events that are carried out as a way of initiating and making a statement that the new child is now part of the community.

Kwita Izina was conceived as a way to promote the conservation of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, by celebrating new births. Rwanda is one of the few countries with these gentle giants in the wild, along with Uganda and neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Meanwhile, the role of local communities in conserving Rwanda gorillas and other wildlife is paramount, as the biggest threats to mountain gorillas come from poaching snares and habitat encroachment by farmland. Local communities around protected areas receive 5% of the tourism revenue generated by these destinations - so they have a vested interest in protecting the species.

Through sharing tourism revenue, various community projects receive funding around the country. This year, a maize mill and a women's maize production cooperative near Nyungwe Forest National Park will be unveiled, in addition to the traditional gorilla naming ceremony itself near Volcanoes National Park.

Growth of tourism through the mighty gorilla naming

Starting in 1994, the government of Rwanda put considerable effort into developing a clear tourism strategy. With private sector and UN input, the government successfully drafted a tourism strategy focusing on high-end tourism with conservation at the core of its plan. The strategy also outlined the need for diversification of tourism to international conferencing, birding, and other animals. An international marketing campaign was launched to improve the image of the country abroad, while a domestic campaign aimed to increase local acceptance of tourists. Several market-based reforms were also adopted--namely, near-complete privatization of the hotel and leisure sector.

Gorilla tourism in Rwanda has proven hugely successful in recent years, generating local employment and tourism-related revenue. In a 2010 census, Rwanda had a 26.3 percent growth of mountain gorillas for 2003 which was amazing in just seven years.

Rwanda today has the only gorilla population that hasn't decreased because more gorilla populations elsewhere have been decreasing. Trans-boundary cooperation between Uganda, Tanzania, the DRC and Rwanda to govern the three national parks and maintain the gorillas against poachers is one effective way that has protected the species.

"We have regular meetings with the director generals of the national parks to discuss strategies; a system of pricing and other regulations such as only 8 people can visit a gorilla family at any one time for one hour for five hundred dollars. We've taken a regional approach once again to solving the problem of the gorillas; we're hoping to have a treaty signed between the three presidents so that we can continue our progress. It is the bottoms up approach that has really worked," says Rica Rwigamba, the Head of Tourism and Conservation, Department of Rwanda Development Board (RDB).

Rwanda has ensured a balance between tourism trips and gorilla conservation to ensure that the health of the gorillas and the integrity of their habitat is maintained.

"90 per cent of the receipts we get from park entrances are from the mountain gorillas. Because the mountain gorillas move between the three countries when we charge an entrance fee fifty percent goes to the country that the gorillas have moved from and it works well for us, we trust that if our gorillas do move that they will also pay us," Rwigamba explains.

Rwanda has also been part of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP)- whose goal is to ensure the conservation of mountain gorillas and their regional afromontane forest habitat in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Ongoing IGCP support for park staff in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has boosted morale, and sensitized park neighbours to continue with vital anti-poaching and surveillance patrols.

Gorillas in Rwanda are given a highest importance and value, which is beyond the tourism attraction and conservation. The animals do represent the image of the country and initiatives to ensure their survival is given support at the top political levels.

Speaking at the previous Kwita Izina ceremony, President Paul Kagame said: "Kwita Izina has gone beyond a focus on gorillas and become a potent symbol of Rwanda's efforts to conserve the country's biodiversity. Our tourism industry is strongly anchored on natural assets such as landscapes, parks, forests and rare animal and bird species. We must therefore continue to protect and sustain this valuable resource base."

The Kwita Izina ceremony has been held each year since 2005 and over 120 gorillas have so far been named. It has since become an iconic international event which attracts celebrities such as Natalie Portman and Don Cheadle among many others.

The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) says that the sector has been growing after experiencing a down fall during the genocide. Recent records indicate that for the first semester of 2012, Tourism revenues have increased by 11% compared to the same period in 2011. The tourism sector is estimated to have generated US $128.3m compared to US$115.6m generated in the same period last year.

Rwanda also hosted an estimate of 493,744 visitors in the first semester 2012 corresponding to an increase of 22% compared to 2011 in the same period and recorded a remarkable 16% increase in leisure visitors as well as an 8% increase in business visitors.

In terms of investment promotion, in the first semester only (January to June), the Tourism sector has so far registered projects worth US$ 184.1m. These projects are expected to create 1,328 jobs

For the 8th time, Rwanda will celebrate the birth of 19 baby gorillas in a colourful event known as Kwita Izina (Gorilla Naming) due to take place on June 16 at Kinigi in Musanze District whereby an adult gorilla will be named alongside 19 baby gorillas.

"Sustainable tourism for a green economy" is the theme for this years' Kwita Izina.

Rica Rwigamba, Head of Tourism at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) says that Rwanda has taken environment conservation seriously and this year's Kwita Izina comes at a critical time when the degradation of the ecosystem has reached almost catastrophic proportions. It is evident that Kwita Izina ceremony is a step towards a safe green economy.

"We are keen to promoting responsible tourism and this has earned us recognition around the World. Kwita Izina is just one of many steps that have been taken to recognize and protect the natural habitat of endangered species like the mountain gorillas, the rich bio-diversity in the national parks and the forests in the country," Rwigamba said.

Beside Kwita Izina, other activities related to conservation for this year will include, the Kwita Izina cycling tour, Exhibition on the Green Economy, Community Projects Launch as well as the Cultural Get Together "Igitaramo".

This year's special feature is an online-based interaction to allow people from all over the world to learn more about mountain gorillas as well as choose their 'cutest' baby gorilla under the "Gorilla Idol Contest".

This event is expected to attract high-profile figures, senior government officials, key foreign dignitaries, hundreds of renowned conservationists and media practitioners. Thousands of Rwandans mostly residents near Volcanoes National Park, home for the rare mountain gorillas, will actively participate.

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