Rwanda’s iconic gorilla naming ceremony Kwita Izina, which used to attract celebrities, thousands of locals, tourists and prominent conservationists from across the world, was held this year virtually due to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions that disrupted travel.
Despite the best efforts by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to replicate the event virtually, it did not attract the same huge following due to the absence of a physical crowd.
Gorilla tracking has been a fundamental product of Rwanda’s tourism market, accounting for 14 per cent of tourism annual revenues in 2019.
The virtual event, held on the night of September 24, was broadcast live on local television and radio, and RDB’s Visit Rwanda Youtube channel. Initial figures show the event was followed live by 500 people though the event’s video continues to attract views, gaining more than 9,000 in less than a week.
This year, some of the 24 infant mountain gorillas were named by staff who work in Volcanoes National Park. The list included park rangers, guides, wardens, trackers, porters, and veterinary doctors.
Over the past 15 years, more than 300 mountain gorillas have been named. As a result of conservation efforts, the number of gorillas has increased from 480 in 2010 to 604 in the Virunga Massif in 2016.
Fidele Nizeyimana, a tracker at Volcanoes Park, named a baby gorilla from the Muhoza group Amabwiriza (Guidelines), based on Rwanda’s conservation of the endangered species.
Honorine Uwiragiye, a tracker at Volcanoes Park, named a baby from the Musilikale family Kororoka (Prolific) in tribute to the mother, Ubufatanye, who is relatively young and has given birth three times in just six years. On average, mountain gorillas give birth every four years.
Maria Louise Mbabazi, a community based conservation and education specialist at RDB named a baby from the Igisha family Umusanzu (Contribution). The name recognises the role gorillas play as a source of employment and other income for people living around the park.
Antoine Mudakikwa, a retired veterinarian, named a baby from the Agashya family Umuganga (Gorilla Doctor). He chose the name to honour retiring veterinarians for their long service, dedication and outstanding contribution to the protection of gorillas.
Footballers take part
In 2018, Rwanda signed an advertising deal with popular English football club Arsenal. The three-year deal has already boosted tourism numbers.
"Before the partnership was signed, 71 per cent of the millions of Arsenal fans worldwide did not consider Rwanda a tourist destination, at the end of the first year of the partnership, half of them considered Rwanda a destination to visit,” said Belise Kariza, head of RDB’s tourism department last year.
First team Arsenal players Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Hector Bellerin and Bernd Leno joined this year's Kwita Izina by naming infant gorillas virtually in a pre-recorded videos.
Striker Aubameyang named a baby from the Mafunzo family Igitego (Goal). The name symbolises gorilla conservation and tourism as a win due to their contribution to Rwanda’s development.
Defender Hector Bellerin gave the name Iriza to a baby from the Kwitonda family. The name means First Born. “When you are the firstborn, you feel a sense of responsibility, and it is indeed our responsibility to look after our wildlife. Baby girl Iriza, I can’t wait to meet you,” he said in the pre-recorded video.
Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno named a baby from the Amahoro family Myugariro (Defender). The name highlights how the group’s silverbacks defend family members, and the role everyone needs to play to protect nature.
However, despite the optimism shown by holding a virtual celebration, the pandemic has led to large losses in revenue for key players in the tourism and hospitality sector.
Past booming business
“In previous years, there was a guaranteed spike in clients during the Kwita Izina ceremony. Our services, such as travelling to the place of the event in Kinigi and accommodation, were in high demand for at least one week. This year, it was held virtually. There was no activity on our end, no revenues earned,” said Reginal Hakizimana, a local travel specialist and owner of Rwanda Eco Company Tours.
In 2019, over 17,249 people visited the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. As of this September, the park had received just 1,427 visitors.
For private tour operators, the difference was apparent. John Mugabo, the CEO and founder of Makario Safaris, said that in previous years, his company would earn up to $10,000 from a Kwita Izina event. This year, none of their services was required.
However, seeing how the country is handling the pandemic, Mugabo is hopeful that by next June the sector will have recovered and his company will get back in operation.
“Rwanda is ranked well globally when it comes to handling the pandemic. Some activities are also being opened up,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic from 1.7 million visitors recorded by September 2019, to 5,187 domestic and international tourists who had visited three of the country’s popular parks by September 2020, according to statistics from Rwanda Development Board.
Tourism expert Carmen Nibigira says that Kwita Izina is not just a get-together, but is proof of the government's willingness to further its conservation effort.
“The event was different because this is not a typical time, especially for the tourism sector. But the commitment to hold the event virtually is certainly good for conservation efforts,” she said.
She added that the event also offered an opportunity to bring the conservation journey closer to Rwandans and the world.
'I would still do my job even if it was for free'
Every morning, Francois Bigirimana, 64, takes a 30 minutes’ drive from his home to Volcanoes National Park. He arrives at about 9am along with his fellow rangers. The commander gives the daily briefing and splits the rangers into several teams. Each team takes on a group of about 10 guests or tourists, and the journey into the forest begins.
This has been Bigirimana’s life since 1982 when he joined park rangers at the age of 23. He has never had any other job. He has nine children and four grandchildren. He has provided for his family on the Rwf300,000 ($307) monthly salary.
“My job is the most satisfying. I would rather do it for free than leaving. Gorillas are amazing creatures that never cease to amaze me even after all these years,” he says.
Bigirimana is the oldest park ranger at Virunga National Park and the most experienced. He is considered legendary by people at Kinigi given his experience working with Diana Fossey, the renowned American primatologist and conservationist known for undertaking an extensive study of mountain gorillas from 1966 until her death in 1985.
Bigirimana was among 24 guides, porters, veterinarians, and ranger trackers who named an infant gorilla on September 24. He named a male baby Izabukuru (Elderhood), born on October 30, 2019, to Gukunda from the Sabyinyo family. The baby was born when his mother Gukunda was relatively old.
In 2014, Bigirimana named a female infant from Pablo’s group Kundurwanda (Love Rwanda) because gorillas attract visitors to Rwanda. Bigirimana grew up in Kinigi, Musanze, close to Volcanoes Park. He started out as a porter. At that time the park was facing dangers of poaching and constant fires due to lack of conservation measures. He is grateful that he has witnessed significant change in gorilla conservation during the past 26 years.
“At the time, nobody really cared about the wellbeing of gorillas and other wildlife in the forest. It was painful to see how some animals were treated by residents,” he said.
Bigirimana has helped many young men in his community to work at the park. He recommends the job because it contributes to conservation as well as the country’s economy.
“Today I own a car and a house. I live a satisfied happy life. So young people should know that this is also a career to consider,” he said.
One of his most memorable experiences was when his life was saved by a gorilla. “I was with one gorilla family in the forest walking around. I was in front. All of a sudden, one of the strongest gorillas grabbed me by my coat and tossed me backwards. As I wondered what was happening, the gorilla cleared the ground for me to see a trap that could have left me probably crippled or dead,” he narrates.
Bigirimana says his experience with gorillas has kept him at his job for almost 40 years. Although he plans on retiring soon, the park will always be his home.