10 September 2017

Rwanda: The Noble Task of Naming a Mountain Gorilla

Every year, Rwanda names its baby gorillas at the Kwita Izina ceremony, held at the base of the Volcanoes National Park where the endangered mountain gorillas live.

Volcanoes is part of the Virunga range of mountains that also covers parts of the DR Congo and Uganda.

This year, Kwita Izina was held on September 1, and was graced by President Paul Kagame.

"Mountain gorillas are a part of our natural resources and our heritage. It is everyone's responsibility to conserve and protect biodiversity. In protecting gorillas, we have everything to gain," he said.

I climbed the Volcanoes to see the gorillas with some of the namers who shared their thoughts about naming the baby gorillas.

Prof Dr Eberhard Fischer is the head of the Department of Botany and Biodiversity at the University of Koblenz in Germany. "I was really surprised when I got the invitation to name a gorilla, and it is a great honour. It is the highlight of my visits to Rwanda," he said.

Over the past 30 years, he has identified and named some of Rwanda's plants, and written books on the country's biodiversity. He has research projects in Namugongo forest, out of Nyungwe National Park, with a focus on agroforestry, to protect the 300 hectare forest, and also gives botanical workshops to forest rangers.

"This was my 102nd time to come to Rwanda, and 16th time to see the gorillas. Every time is like seeing the gorillas for the first time."

Dr Fischer named a baby gorilla from the Isimbi group, who was born on March 2, this year. He called it Isuku, which means cleanliness in Kinyarwanda.

Dr Tara Stoinski is the chief executive and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the author of over 90 scientific publications and books.

"It's a huge honour to name a gorilla. I have studied and loved gorillas for more than two decades. Knowing that these names represent what has been happening in the lives of the gorillas, and the people who protect them, make the naming very special.

"It's the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Karisoke Research Centre by Dian Fossey this year. We have been working with the government in Rwanda to help protect gorillas for 50 years. As part of the anniversary celebrations, they gave us the honour of giving a baby gorilla a name," she said.

Dr Stoinski named a baby gorilla from the Titus group, who was born on August 4 last year. She called it Macibiri. Nyiramacibiri was Dian Fossey's Kinyarwanda nickname.

In the lead up to the Kwita Izina ceremony, a series of talks titled Conversation on Conservation are held, and this year the MC was Dr Winnie Kiiru. She promotes elephant protection initiative through the Stop Ivory organisation. She is also a trustee of the Kenya Wildlife Service. It was her first time to see the gorillas.

"I didn't know I was going to be more than the MC at the conference. When I was asked to name a gorilla, I was truly honoured because I know how big a deal this ceremony is.

I asked the universe to grant me a gift for my 50th birthday which is on September 19. I got the opportunity to go gorilla tracking, something I've wanted to do for a long time," she said.

Dr Kiiru named a baby gorilla from the Kryama family, who was born on April 1, last year. She named the baby Arakaza, which means welcome. They are just over 800 mountain gorillas remaining in the world, with about 400 in Rwanda.

Last year, Rwanda earned more than $400 million from tourism, and 5 per cent was invested in community development projects through revenue sharing.

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