(eTN) – All over Rwanda large posters went up last weekend, reminding the country that the annual Festival of the Gorillas, aka Kwita Izina, is now just weeks away. This year, in its 9th edition, the annual naming of newborn gorilla babies will be held on June 22 near the headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park at Kinigi, and a series of activities will already kick off on June 14 to lead up to and commemorate the annual event.
The Rwanda Development Board’s (RDB) Tourism and Conservation Department, headed by Mrs. Rica Rwigamba, will be pulling out all the stops again to make sure that the country’s efforts to protect the mountain gorillas will be publicized all over the world, as the global conservation fraternity, friends of Rwanda, and tourists from all over the world flock to Musanze and do an annual animal pilgrimage of the gorilla kind.
Tracking mountain gorillas remains Rwanda’s highest profile tourism activity, and is by any standards well organized and “packaged,” so that visitors, who after all pay US$750 per person per tracking, get the full value for their money. Every day there are 10 groups of gorillas available for visits by tourists, who assemble at the park headquarters at 7:00 a.m. It is there that they are allocated to which group they will track, where they meet their guides, get the opportunity to meet fellow group members, and get their initial briefing. The RDB serves complimentary coffee and tea to the visitors from near and far, and a group of traditional Rwandan dancers perform some of their thrilling displays to set the mood for the day.
Come rain or shine, the 10 groups of a maximum of 8 tourists will be on the road by the latest at 8:00 a.m., driving to their “jump off point” from where their hike up one of the five volcanoes commences. Some of the gorilla groups are known to have a shorter access route while others are more distant from the park headquarters, and some require a short drive and a longer hike, while others require a longer drive but a shorter walk. In the end, however, all offer visitors the experience of a lifetime. By my own count I have now been privileged to visit the gentle giants of the Virunga Mountains, and of Bwindi, 20 times, and every time I see different scenarios, different behavior, different patterns.
The timeframes differ widely, my longest hike taking nearly 12 hours in pouring rain, before gorilla tracking had become a regularized tourism attraction in Uganda in the early 90s, to just under 3 hours, to and from the Kinigi park headquarters in Rwanda in glorious sunshine. Getting all sweaty, wet to the skin at times in spite of protective clothes, scratched by thorns and “beaten” by snapping branches, stuck in bamboo or thickets, wading knee deep in open glades saturated with rainwater or literally trotting along well-beaten paths, it is all part of the experience, part of the excitement, and makes part of the memories tourists take home with them, as ambassadors of conservation, friends of the gorillas, and last but not least, friends of Rwanda.
This year, a dozen young and newborn gorillas will be named, manifesting the steady growth in gorilla numbers as a result of a concerted effort by the communities living around the park, separated from the forest by a chest-high stone wall meandering and winding along the volcanoes for about 70 kilometers to the border with Uganda by RDB and their team of dedicated wardens, rangers, trackers and guides, and by international NGOs like the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International and many others contributing in cash and kind to gorilla conservation. However, crucial to the success of RDB’s conservation efforts was to get the local communities on board, turning poachers into guardians of Rwanda’s wildlife heritage and showing the communities that benefits come their way as a result of them endorsing conservation measures.
Five percent of the revenue from gorilla activities comes directly to the community beneficiaries, in the form of constructing water tanks, laying water pipes to homesteads, improving health and education facilities, and other infrastructure such as better roads. Every year, over the two days prior to the naming of the gorillas, such projects are either launched or handed over upon completion, a timely reminder of the cooperative spirit shown by the locals and their appreciation by the wildlife managers. Additionally, of course, numerous jobs have been created through gorilla tourism, and tourism in general. Every group of tourists going up the mountain is able to engage the services of a porter, highly recommended for that matter, at a nominal cost of US$20, who can carry the water, camera equipment, and spare batteries and is ever ready to give a helping hand to climb up and down some of the steeper sections when ascending the mountain.
Farm supplies, like fruits and vegetables, are sourced from local farmers by hotels and lodges which have sprung up around Kinigi and, of course, in Musanze itself, and staff are recruited from among local school leavers who are then trained to perform well on their jobs.
Tourism, which has in past years grown in leaps and bounds by double-digit figures, vis-a-vis arrivals and in terms of revenues, has become a key cornerstone of Rwanda’s economy, and conservation is not just a hollow phrase or lip service, but a firm commitment from the highest office in the land to the local grassroots “cells,” the smallest administrative unit in the country. Kwita Izina is an annual highlight in the calendar of Rwanda’s events, and though other festivals like FESPAD 2013 earlier this year, also grab headlines, it is the Festival of the Gorillas which year after year commands the highest attendances and attention, regionally and internationally.