“If only we would collectively rise to mankind’s greatest challenge to restore what we unjustly borrowed in the name of civilisation, the world would become a better place.” That was Sir David Attenborough’s key message as he chatted with a small group of distinguished guests at the Rwanda High Commission yesterday.
The veteran broadcaster and conservationist was invited by Her Excellency Yamina Karitanyi, the High Commissioner of Rwanda to the UK (in cooperation with the Rwanda Development Board), to visit the High Commission and name a newborn gorilla as part of this year’s Kwita Izina1 gorilla naming ceremony. While there, Sir David met with select guests to discuss conservation in Rwanda, his famous encounter with mountain gorillas there in 1978, and the special place these remarkable animals hold in the hearts of people all around the world.
“There is no feeling that surpasses coming face to face with a great ape; their resemblance to mankind is uncanny,” says Attenborough. “As you gaze at them, careful not to make eye contact, you become small in their presence and begin to appreciate the evolutionary process of life.”
With only around 880 individuals remaining in the wild, mountain gorillas are Critically Endangered and face many threats to their survival. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of communities, rangers, conservationists and government agencies, their future looks much brighter today than when Attenborough first encountered them in 1978.
“When the film crew arrived in Rwanda in 1978, we were met by a distraught Dian Fossey who was grieving over the death of one of the gorillas – a little male who had been killed by poachers. At that time mountain gorillas really were on the brink of extinction, and as I left she made me promise to do what I could to help,” says Attenborough.
Upon his return to the UK, Attenborough arranged a meeting with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), a charity that he still supports as vice-president. From that meeting the Mountain Gorilla Project was born, which survives to this day as the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) – a collaboration between FFI and WWF.
And it has been working. Thanks to a deliberate policy of democratising conservation that supports and empowers communities to take ownership, as well as the hard work of governments and conservation partners across its range, the mountain gorilla population is now on the rise.
Conservation without borders
This spirit of collaboration has proven absolutely crucial to the mountain gorilla’s continued survival in the face of severe threats.
“Mountain gorilla conservation has always been challenged by the fact that these animals range across the borders of three states – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC),” said IGCP Director, Anna Behm Masozera.
“At times it has meant political and even personal risk to ensure that conservation and protection activities were well coordinated across international borders, even when this was neither a very popular nor well understood concept.
“But thanks to the incredible determination of all involved, governments from the three states have recently signed a landmark treaty that will pave the way for coordinated conservation without borders, turning a challenge into an incredible opportunity for wildlife and people,” she added.
So are mountain gorillas worth all this effort?
According to the Rwanda Development Board, tourism is now Rwanda’s largest source of foreign income which generated US$318 million in 2015. One estimate suggests that mountain gorilla activities are the leading leisure component, which accounts for around 60% of this total revenue.
But the Chief Tourism Officer at the Rwanda Development Board, Belise Kariza, believes there is much more to it than a dollar value – as exemplified by Kwita Izina, a special ceremony held for the gorillas each year.
“Naming ceremonies for newly born babies have been part of Rwandan culture and tradition for centuries. Kwita Izina connects to these traditions to create a strong bond between the country’s people and the gorillas,” she says.
“The names given to the gorillas also play a significant role in the ongoing monitoring of individuals, as part of the remarkable efforts by the Government of Rwanda through the Rwanda Development Board – in collaboration with various conservation partners and local communities – to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat,” she added.
“On 2nd September, we are delighted to say that we will be naming 22 baby gorillas as we celebrate the 12th annual Kwita Izina. Alongside these celebrations, we will also be holding a ‘conversation on conservation’ forum designed to help us forge a great future for wildlife together with conservation partners all over the world.”
Attenborough hopes that the mountain gorilla success story can be replicated elsewhere. “All around the world, species and ecosystems are in decline. If the mountain gorilla has taught us anything, it is that the conservation of our natural world is vital not just for wild species in and of themselves, but for mankind as a whole.”