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This was a naming day with a difference. More than 10,000 people had gathered to see these African infants being welcomed into the world. The president of Rwanda, ex-Prime Minister of Haiti, Howard Buffett (son of the billionaire Warren Buffet) and numerous international celebrities had gathered in a tent at the base of Volcanoes National Park to celebrate the birth of 19 baby gorillas.
The gorillas didn’t join the party as they prefer the jungle to the spotlight, but this didn’t stop the Rwandese people from celebrating the arrival of their latest inhabitants. Some of the locals had travelled for days to make sure they were there to see each gorilla being welcomed to the world.
In true African tradition the Kwita Izina [naming day] ceremony started five hours late. But this didn’t dampen the spirit of the crowd who were standing outside the VIP area in the sweltering heat. When the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame arrived to a rockstar reception he chose to walk straight towards his people rather than to the waiting dignitaries.
But as popular as the president is it was clear who was the star of the show, as a gigantic silverback gorilla that was constructed out of bamboo formed the roof of the stage and was the focal point for proceedings.
The Rwandan Development Board named 19 gorillas who were celebrating their first birthday. With infanticide and other causes being taken into consideration, by the time a baby gorilla reaches the one year mark, or thereabouts they can usually assure that the baby gorilla has been accepted by the group.
When we arrived at the VIP tent we were given a programme that featured the photographs of all the gorillas who were about to be named and were given the chance to fill in their name once they’d been announced.
The names are taken from the local language, but their meanings can often reflect what is going on in the world at that moment. There were names such as Ubwiza (beautiful) and Inkesha (Star), but there were also more quirky names such as Iriba (Water Source), Imirasire (Ray of Light, to celebrate the growth of solar power) and Ikoranabuhanga meaning Information Technology.
Guests had flown from all over the world to be there to help name the gorillas. Previous stars who had been given the honour of naming the gorillas including famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough. This year, the ex-Prime Minister for the Republic of Haiti Hon Laurent Lamothe, Sports Illustrated model and Africa Wildlife Foundation board member Veronica Varekova, and New York model Chloe Bello flew in to name a baby from the flagship species. Businessmen who had also worked hard to protect the environment in the region were also invited to take part including Graham Ledger, Managing Director of Singita Grumeti Reserves.
As the name for each baby gorilla was revealed the crowd whooped and cheered with glee. The gorillas also helped bring them together, bond and think about the future in a positive way. For this is a country that is still rebuilding itself as a nation – 1994 was just the other day. They want to be seen as one nation, with one people, one identity… Tribalism is something they continue to move away from and have moved away from.
As an outsider is was so inspiring to see a small African country, who was recently in the throes of a horrendous genocide and is one of the poorest countries in the world celebrate conservation in such an incredible way. To me that is just unbelievably forward thinking and visionary on behalf of the president and the people.
They are tremendously proud of their mountain gorillas and they know how important it is to protect them. The foundation for this came from the work of Dian Fossey and since her death has been continued by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The Rwandese can now see that the gorillas can benefit their lives immensely. Each habituated mountain gorilla can indirectly generate around USD$3million during its lifetime from tourism income.
The day before the event we all went gorilla trekking. Rwanda Development Board has a 100 per cent guarantee you will see the gorillas when you join a trek. It probably is the easiest way that you will see them. In Uganda the terrain is quite tough and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has other issues. But as the gorillas are under constant surveillance during daylight hours as they are protected by guards, the guides are who are in contact with the guards are able to find the gorilla groups relatively easily.
On the day of the trek I came away with two overriding feelings: One was awe and joy, but fear and sadness what if I never get to do this again as there are less than 1,000 of these gentle giants left in the world.
But after watching the naming day, it only helps fills you with hope. As it was clear that the country viewed these creatures as a national treasure.
To experience the gorillas in Rwanda for yourself, contact Lightfoot's Head Of Africa, Victoria.
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Observe family groups of wild chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda
See a huge diversity of primates including the rare L’Hoest’s monkey
Hike around stunning volcanic crater lakes
Experience two family gorilla groups in Bwindi Impenetrable NP
Spot rare birds and butterflies in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary in Africa
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The architecture, museums and restaurants of Kigali
Nature drives looking for elephant, zebra, giraffe and buffalo
Track mountain Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park
Spot colobus monkeys and chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park
Hike to crater lake on Mount Bisoke
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