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What’s in a (gorilla’s) name? Rwanda’s arrival as conservation leader

© Keiko Mori/Kwita Izina

Tunganirwa, the baby mountain gorilla CI’s Sandy Andelman named during the Kwita Izina ceremony. The name means “to be fortunate” in the Kinyarwanda language. (© Keiko Mori/Kwita Izina)

Amid a seemingly endless news cycle of wildlife losses and land degradation coming out of Africa, Rwanda is a conservation bright spot. As a member of the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa, the country is already a leader on the continent when it comes to valuing natural resources and prioritizing sustainable development. But it was the Kwita Izina — or national gorilla naming ceremony — held earlier this month at Volcanoes National Park that revealed most clearly to me how Rwanda is putting conservation at the forefront.

I was in Rwanda to serve as a “gorilla namer,” chosen for my contributions to conservation in Rwanda and, on a larger scale, in Africa. Serving as a gorilla namer is an incredible honor with a long and rich history. Kwita Izina is recognized as the most important annual conservation event in Rwanda — essentially it’s a national conservation holiday. It was launched in 2005 as an adaptation of a traditional Rwandan baby naming ceremony, where people gather and rejoice. Not only does Kwita Izina play an important role in recognizing how critical it is to monitor baby gorillas in the context of their families, their population and their habitat, but it’s a yearly celebration of conservation success in Rwanda.

A few days before the naming ceremony, I was invited by the Rwanda Development Board to participate in a national “Conversation on Conservation” to ensure conservation is incorporated into national development. Over the course of two days, participants produced a set of a dozen resolutions, including establishing an integrated monitoring system based on a number of critical national strategies (such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy, and Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategies). I’m optimistic that the discussions will translate to real actions given the level of follow-up I’ve already seen.

After the Conversation on Conservation, I traveled to Kinigi, at the base of Volcanoes National Park, for an hour-long look at mountain gorillas. Six of us hiked up Sabyinyo Mountain on a path that cut through waist-high nettles. As we turned to head back down the mountain we spotted a female gorilla coming up the trail toward us holding a tiny baby, just seven weeks old. I was directly in her path, but there was nowhere to move without diving into the nettles! Our guide instructed me to simply lean away — I did, trying hard not to fall over, and the gorilla gently brushed against my leg as she passed by. This encounter would have been extremely rare even 30 years ago — but there are more mountain gorillas today than there were in 1983, when I first visited them. Unfortunately, this isn’t a statistic you hear often when it comes to wildlife in Africa.

On the day of the ceremony, all of the gorilla namers sat sequestered in traditional huts. This year, 21 mountain gorillas were born in Volcanoes National Park, so there were 21 namers gathered, one for each baby gorilla. Roughly half of the namers were Rwandan, and included the country’s top three high school students and members of Urban Boyz, its most popular band. The other half of the namers were international, like me and the EU Ambassador to Rwanda. I donned a sparkly beaded crown and a traditional Rwandan dress and headed out to the ceremony, where nearly 60,000 Rwandans, including H.E. President Paul Kagame, were gathered to celebrate conservation in Rwanda.

There is much to celebrate: Last year, the government of Rwanda reintroduced lions to Akagera National Park; in December, they plan to reintroduce 30 to 40 black rhinos; and earlier this year, they officially designated a new national park, Gishwati-Mukura National Park, to protect and restore the degraded forest for both environmental and economic benefits to people.

During the Kwita Izina ceremony, H.E. President Kagame was clearly moved by both the stories of the namers and by the stories of the gorilla babies and their families. I was told later that he said to Frances Gatare, the CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, “I am not doing enough for conservation. I need to do more.”

I named my baby gorilla Tunganirwa, which means “to be fortunate” in the Kinyarwanda language. Given Rwanda’s focus on conservation and sustainable development, it couldn’t be more fitting.

Sandy Andelman is a chief scientist and senior vice president of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science at CI.

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