Rwanda conservation news update – Kwita Izina 2011, treasured memories

KWITA IZINA 2011 – THE DAY OF NAMING GORILLAS

When I told some of my acquaintances in Kampala recently that I was once again going back to Rwanda to attend Kwita Izina 2011, their reaction was almost predictable as they promptly shot back at me: Kwit WHAT EXACTLY?

Having had that experience before I patiently set out to explain that Kwita Izina, pronounced KWITIZINA, was Rwanda’s annual naming of newly born mountain gorillas and a weeklong festival celebrating conservation and honouring the local communities living near the Volcanoes National Park in Musanze, formerly known as Ruhengeri. ‘Ahh, ok, now we understand, KWITIZINA’ was the reaction to that effort, to which I nodded and also said ‘Yes, KWITIZINA’ …

Inaugurated in 2005, when the naming ceremony was held for the very first time – although gorillas had been named before by their trackers, rangers and the wardens in the park, or else the researchers often living with them for prolonged periods – the ‘formal naming’ was kicked off by none other than President Paul Kagame and his wife Jeanette, who were the first ‘Namers’ in 2005 to ‘baptize’ a twin pair of baby gorillas ‘Byishimo, meaning Happiness and Impano, meaning Gift’. The two babies, born to their mother Nyabyitondere were of the Susa Group.

Since then a further 122 young gorillas have been named by a succession of Hollywood celebrities, world renowned conservationists and gorilla researchers, business people and most notably local Rwandans from the neighbourhood of the park, demonstrating the ‘ownership’ by locals of ‘their gorillas’, from which they now earn substantial benefits. Porters going with each group of tourists up the mountains carry water and back packs and earn between 10 to 20 US Dollars per trip, while more locals are now employed in the park directly as trackers, wardens and guides. Others sell locally made curio items or T-shirts tailored to the very gorilla group the tourists visited, just as soon as they get back to the ‘jump off points’ where their safari vehicles await them again. A revenue share scheme is in place, giving 5 percent of each tracking permit sold back to the communities for the building and maintenance of schools, water wells, water tanks and other social amenities, and with a permit selling for 500 US Dollars a person, and as many as 64 such permits available per day – often sold out months in advance – this can amount to well over half a million US Dollars per annum, being distributed equitably amongst the villages along the 5 volcanoes where the mountain gorillas have their habitat.

When Kwita Izina, incidentally with details available on the web via www.kwitizina.org, started in 2005, it was a one day event, which in the meantime has grown to a weeklong festival of activities, including a cycling race attracting athletes from all over Eastern Africa – this year an Eritrean won again – but also from beyond Africa, such is the appeal to come to Rwanda, The Land of a Thousand Hills.

In addition Rwanda now hosts a full day conservation conference, and mindful that 2011 is the UN’s International Year of the Forests, the theme this year was selected as ‘Forest Stewardship by Communities: Contributions, Benefits and Future Prospects, which brought hundreds of conservationists from East and Central Africa, but also from as far as Israel, South Africa, Angola and even the US and Europe together.

Relevant presentations by renowned scientists were followed by intense group discussions and interaction between participants, before agreeing on a set of recommendations which were handed over to the Government of Rwanda and copied to the East African Community headquarters in Arusha for regional consideration.

The Rwandan Minister for Natural Resources, the Hon. Stanislas Kamanzi, reiterated Rwanda’s commitment and determination, to widen forest cover across the country and especially in the areas between Nyungwe Forest and Gishwati Forest to 30 percent by 2020, up from just over 20 percent at present, a model surely for many other countries to follow, in on our continent and beyond.

Also in the same week could visitors see the launch of Rwanda’s cultural tourism component with the National Institute of Museums inaugurating a former palace of the ancient Rwandan kingdom, bringing the history of the country closer to tourist visitors but also their own people, especially the younger generation who grew up after the country had been turned into a republic.

The handover of community projects near Musanze / Ruhengeri  preceded the main event on Saturday 18th of June in Kinigi, near the park headquarters, when four 80.000 litre community water tanks were handed over to villages, available to the people living there and sparing them long distance walks to rivers and springs, while 52 small farms received their own rainwater fed tanks against a small personal contribution to the overall cost of installation, bringing great relief to them too as their daily water needs for domestic use, to water their livestock and for use in irrigating their gardens was now made easier and faster by the new tanks.

But prior to the big day, when 22 new born gorilla babies were to be ‘baptised’, opportunity arose once again to actually visit the gorillas, and it was the Hirwa Group, into which twins were born only weeks earlier I was privileged to see.

 

 

(seen here the mother of the  twins, called Kabatwa, one little one ‘backpacking’ and the other one hidden from sight below the mom. They were the following day named ‘Isangano’ and ‘Isango’ respectively by Mr. and Mrs. Mark van Modrick).

 

Having had ‘hard tracking’ in the past, with up to 8 hours including pouring rain and knee-deep muddy stretches, this trip was very different, to and from in less than three hours, the longest actually being the approach walk up to the perimeter wall which runs along the entire national park boundary from the Ugandan border to the border of the Congo DR.

No sooner had we cross into the park proper, were we greeted already by one of the armed trackers and guards, which are almost permanently with the gorillas to ensure their safety, and Francois, our main guide, gave us a final round of instructions before we left our porters, back packs and water canteens behind to make a final approach to the gorillas.

 

(Francois giving final instructions of ‘do’s and don’ts’ before leading us right into the middle of the Hirwa Group which is 16 members strong)

 

Through thick bamboo forest we had to make our way towards the gorillas, which were spread out, on the ground but also high up in the trees, and the closer we got to these magnificent animals, nearest to mankind in their DNA make up after the chimpanzees only, the more we heard them, munching, crunching and as we got closer even punching the ground. Adolescents ‘abseiled’ from the trees, others were happily swinging above us while the females watched their young offspring AND us to make sure none of us 8 visitors got too close to them. That said, the younger gorillas showed their sense of adventure and came close to us, one in the process even holding on to my trouser, leaving me standing absolutely still until this little one had moved on before breathing out …

All along though the dominant silverback, named Munyinya before I re-baptized him ‘Salongo Munyinya’ – after all he had fathered a very rare pair of twins – was always positioning himself between us and his family, protective and alert and yet still finding time to devour fresh bamboo shoots and other forest delicatessen he picked from trees and bushes or from the ground.

 

 

(Hirwa’s silverback, previously known as Munyinya and now also called ‘Salongo Munyinya’ a name given by the Buganda people to fathers of twins)

 

The one hour with the gentle giants of the Virunga mountains was up in no time and Francois ushered us firmly away from the animals, leaving their ‘regular’ guards and wardens behind, as we made our way to the perimeter wall, exited the park and then began to discuss our adventure, not being able to speak loudly while inside the forest and near the gorillas.

And then the big day dawned on Rwanda, Kwita Izina 2011 had finally arrived and with the Right Honourable Prime Minister of Rwanda Bernard Makuza as Chief Guest at the function, the Rwandan government once again showed their commitment to conservation.

22 gorillas, born since Kwita Izina 2010 were named, by a cross section of conservationists, local people and business representatives of companies which had during the last 12 months again shown their commitment towards conservation in Rwanda and generously contributed to a range of conservation and community projects across the country – and Kenya Airways, The Pride of Africa was one of them, represented by their Rwanda Country Manager.

 

 

(Some of the ‘Namers’, dressed in traditional Rwandan outfits, with RDB – Tourism and Conservation’s Miss Rica Rwigamba at centre stage making the announcements)

 

Rwanda presently has 8 habituated gorilla groups, spread over the 5 main volcanoes Muhabura, Mgahinga, Karisimbi, Visoke, also at times called Bisoke and Sabyinyo, bearing the following names: Sabyinyo Group, Karisoke Group, 13 Group, Amahoro Group, Umubano Group, Susa Group, Hirwa Group and Kwitonda Group. Up to 8 tourists per day are allowed to approach the animals in their natural habitat up the mountains but are only allowed contact for a maximum of one hour to protect the ‘gentle giants of the Virunga mountains’ from disease and disruption of their social fabric.

 

 

(Traditional dancers enjoying themselves as much as the crowd did)

 

 

(Cultural performances portraying life in Rwanda as it once was)

 

 

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