Rwanda named two-dozen baby mountain gorillas in an annual ceremony on Saturday that highlights the African country’s efforts to protect the endangered animals, which attract large numbers of foreign tourists to the volcano-studded forests where they live.
The young gorillas, identified by trackers and researchers, were in their wild habitat nearby and not at the naming event Saturday in Kinigi, near the entrance to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. But Rwandan President Paul Kagame was among thousands of people who gathered there to celebrate the threatened population of mountain gorillas, whose image adorns numerous sculptures in Rwanda as well as a national currency banknote.
The names bestowed on the gorillas on Saturday included the words for “Power,” ”Courage” and Conviviality” in the Rwandan language.
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Massif, which spans Volcanoes National Park as well as parks in neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another population of mountain gorillas lives in a separate area of Uganda.
The numbers of mountain gorillas dropped dramatically in the last century because of poaching, disease and human encroachment on their habitats. The total population of mountain gorillas in the whole world is currently an estimated 900; conservationists say the population has been increasing in recent years.
Gorillas are facing insurmountable odds these days—odds many fear could lead to their extinction within a decade or two. Thousands of gorillas have been killed by the Ebola virus. Huge agriculture, mining, and timber operations segment gorilla habitat into isolated blocks. The logging leads not only to vital habitat loss, but to major literal inroads used for gorilla poaching.
Almost every bit of a gorilla is salable on the black market. Their hands are considered delicacies or magic charms—or sometimes made into ashtrays. Their heads are taken as fetishes or curiosities. But it’s the meat that really makes gorilla poaching attractive.
So what can be done to save them?
For decades, the idea has been to make gorillas worth more alive than dead. Gorilla tourism is the new cash crop in parts of the Congo Basin and beyond. Much of the money that comes in goes directly to local communities for schools and other beneficial projects. Gorilla tourism also provides valuable jobs in these areas.
The Rwandan government hopes the naming ceremony, which began in 2005 and is based on a similar tradition among Rwandans, will highlight the importance of protecting mountain gorillas as well as promote the tourism industry, the country’s top foreign currency earner. Researchers also refer to the names to identify gorillas and their families while conducting studies in the wild.