Kwita Izina, the annual gorilla naming ceremony, has been around for more than a decade now and with it has come continued education and awareness, not only locally but also on the global scene, one of the several conservation milestones Rwanda has achieved.
The conservation efforts have paid off and the number of the endangered species has increased significantly specifically on the Rwandan part of the broader Virunga massif. This, according to, Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer at Rwanda Development Board (RDB), calls for more efforts to expand the gorilla habitat to accommodate the ever-growing number.
In an interview with The New Times' Athan Tashobya, RDB's Kariza gives a glimpse on why they intend to expand the park, among other priorities for the 12th edition of Kwita Izina series of events.
What have been the improvements and evolution of Kwita Izina over the last 12 years?
Over the years, Kwita Izina event specifically has brought to light the fact that the endangered mountain gorillas, about 800 of which are left in the entire world, must be protected and constant measures and conservation regulations have to be put in place in order to protect them sustainably. In Rwanda, 239 mountain gorillas have been named in the 12 ceremonies since the first Kwita Izina in 2005. This year, 19 mountain gorillas will be named on September 1, in Kinigi.
The naming ceremony is also an opportunity to thank the communities for their on-going and valuable support in the conservation of the park, wildlife and their environment.
Kwita Izina is always preceded by a weeklong series of activities geared towards creating awareness on conservation initiatives and learning from the different stakeholders on how we can resolve conservation challenges.
KwitaIzina has been a marketing platform for Rwanda tourism, on annual basis we in collaboration with the tourism private sector invite international tour operators who do familiarisation trips and get to promote and package Rwanda as a tourism destination. We also invite international media to learn more about the destination.
What are some of the planned events and session during the conservation week? What is the main targeted impact of these events?
We are commencing with the fundraising Gala Dinner on (August 26, 2017) at the Kigali Convention Centre, with the objective of supporting Rwanda's ongoing successful conservation projects specifically "the expansion of Gorilla Habitat", followed by the Kwita Izina conservation and tourism exhibition on August 27- 28, 2017 at former Camp Kigali now known as Kigali Conference and Exhibition Village. The Conversation on Conservation Conference will follow on August 28- 30 2017 also at the Kigali Conference and Exhibition Village.
Our targeted impact for all of these planned events is to continue creating and sharing general awareness about wildlife conservation.
This year, the revenue sharing ratios with the communities were reviewed, what's the reason for the new model and the perceived impacts?
The revenue ratio changed from 5% to 10% mainly because we believe the communities around the parks have contributed to the success of conservation in Rwanda and their efforts have to be acknowledged. This ratio change came with an increase in the price for the Gorilla permits.
The revenue sharing will impact the communities around the park through implementation of infrastructural projects the communities most need such as road construction, schools, health centers, clean water facilities to name a few.
What are some of the impacts so far from the revenue sharing model?
The revenue sharing model has positively impacted the communities around the parks, for instance, road improvements; schools were built closer to the residential homes to ensure that children wouldn't have to walk long distances and access to better health facilities.
Since the launch of Community Projects, on average 220 million Rwandan francs (a year) has been invested into community projects.
Like the successful conservation story, every Rwandan has collective responsibility to sustain these progressive projects, this brings me to share, that the 2017 KwitaIzina theme focuses on a foundation for the future generation.
At the First Gala dinner, staged last year, how much money was raised? Where were the proceeds invested?
Last year's Gala dinner made around Rwf30 million in both ticket sales and the auctions.
All the money that has been raised so far along with the funds that will be raised in the near future will be used in efforts to expand the park.
Tell us about this year's Gala dinner and more about "The Expansion of Gorilla Habitat" project.
The Expansion of Gorilla Habitat project is one of our long term goals and should be a concern for us all. Every Kwita Izina we celebrate new babies implying increase in number of these endangered creatures. To date, the carrying capacity of the Park is limited and that is why this is an urgent and important issue to address.
The size of Volcanoes National Park as of 1958 was 33,870 km2 before it was encroached on by neighbouring population.
Currently, the park covers 160 Km2. We will have to buy land from the people living near the park and relocate them before expanding the park.
What is the biggest gain in conservation efforts over recent years and troubling aspects in conservation that stakeholders are working to address?
The conservation story in Rwanda has been remarkable so far, thanks to the efforts made by the Government of Rwanda, conservation partners, the private sector, all the communities and friends of Rwanda that have been involved. The conservation successes speak for themselves; this year, Akagera National Park became a Big 5 Park following the re- introduction of the Rhinos that were last seen in Rwanda over a decade ago. Gorilla conservation in the Volcanoes National Park remains one of Rwanda's most successful stories.
What has been the impact so far of the revised gorilla permits from $750 to $1500 in terms of demand for permits and to agencies that are connected to tourists?
Compared to last year during the months of May -June, there has been a significant change in the revenues and the new Gorilla permit price has contributed about 15% of that change.
An impact hasn't been identified as the price change is still a new implementation and we are still running bookings that were made from the old ticket prices.
RDB has been mulling high end tourism in a bid to increase tourism receipts, what is the implementation strategy? Composition of working group? Time frame? Deliverables towards the goals?
This is still work in progress. Together with the private sector, we are working on a plan that we shall share once ready.
What are the goals of the Tembera u Rwanda concept and what has been the impact so far?
Tembera u Rwanda is the domestic tourism campaign that was put in place to encourage the domestic and regional markets to actively visit the various and diverse attractions that Rwanda offers.
Last year, there was a 17% increase in domestic tourists in national parks indicating that there was a legitimate interest. We plan to activate more trips later this year in order to continue creating awareness on positive impact of visiting local attractions or vacationing at home.
Some see (Tembera u Rwanda) as a contradiction that Rwandans are being urged to visit sites at a time when gorilla permit prices are being revised upwards.
What's RDB's response to this?
As you know, with the gorilla permit pricing came the doubling in the revenue sharing which is aimed at, on one hand ensuring the long-term sustainability of conservation initiatives whilst enhancing visitors' experience; and on the other hand economically empowering communities living nearby National Parks through providing a greater share of tourism revenues to fund development projects. The tourism revenue contribution will increase from 5% to 10%, which will quadruple the absolute revenues received by communities (because both price and percentage shared is doubling). Over the past 12 years, approximately 400 community development projects have been delivered including health centres, schools, business development centres and water supply systems facilitating access to clean water. These projects directly benefit communities and ensure their support of Rwanda's broader conservation programme, and in particular of law enforcement. These projects have benefitted thousands of Rwandans. Just in Nyabihu, we have built schools for 1,300 students. This is double the number of Rwandans who visited gorillas - about 600 local tourists visited the park and accounted for only 3% of total tourists.
Through several domestic tourism promotional initiatives, we will ensure that local tourists who truly are interested in visiting get a chance to do so. For example, we will have lucky draws/raffles at the Tourism and Conservation exhibition on 27th August at the Kigali Exhibition and Conference Village- do not miss out, you could be a lucky winner. And guess what, entrance is free.