The 15th edition of the gorilla naming ceremony is underway. The event popularly known as Kwita Izina is organized to highlight progress made in conservation.
In the early 1980s, the number of gorillas residing in the Virunga Massif had dropped to 242. Legendary primatologist Dian Fossey warned that gorillas would be extinct by 2,000 if urgent measures to step up conservation efforts wouldn’t be taken.
Poaching was rampant. Animals were constantly attacked and killed or sold in the black market. Irresponsible human interference posed a serious threat to the survival of the remaining gorillas.
Around the world, communities have been struggling with conservation for a very long time. Conflicting interests in land ownership and utilization often lead to frictions between members of the local communities and authorities tasked to protect the national parks.
Moreover, expropriation of land to create protected areas doesn’t sit well with the local population.
To manage the inevitable rancour, a new paradigm giving stakes to neighboring communities has emerged. Through tourism, sustainable non-consumptive means of income are created. In this partnership, parties sharing a common goal are unified to safeguard mutual long-term benefits.
In 2015, the government devised a plan to inject 5% of tourism earnings into projects designed to give back to the communities surrounding the national parks. Later on, that percentage was raised to 10.
So far, Rwf 5.2 billion has been spent on a wide range of projects including construction of houses, schools, hospitals and community centers. The revenue sharing scheme is also credited for provision of clean water and improvement of agricultural production. In addition, the development of tourism is creating more jobs and business opportunities for members of the said communities.
Having seen the contribution of tourism to their welfare, the people are ultimately embracing conservation. It finally makes economic sense to preserve natural resources and biodiversity as opposed to depleting them. Many former poachers are now protecting wildlife. The realization that nature can improve their standards of living through tourism is behind their transformation.
Théoneste Hategekimana, an elderly farmer from Kinigi Sector in Musanze District remembers his lack of appreciation for tourist attractions in the past. "The park didn’t mean anything to me. Economic gains of tourism, if any at the time, used to bypass my village." He says.
Like Théoneste, many other villagers are now looking at the park differently. Their new stand against poaching and practices that are detrimental to the ecosystem is a result of awareness created and benefits extended to them.
Today, all roads are leading to the Kwita Izina venue at the foothills of Volcanoes National Park. Théoneste is not left behind. He is joining a magnitude of people from different parts of the world to celebrate the naming of 25 baby gorillas.
According to the latest census, there are 604 gorillas in the Virunga area. Additional 400 are found in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
The rebounding numbers tell a rare conservation success story. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated the status of mountain gorillas from "critically endangered" to "endangered," which is a promising designation.