June 25, 2005

Rwanda Names Rare Mountain Gorilla Babies

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda -- Rwanda's president joined villagers and conservation workers on the edges this national park Saturday to name 30 rare mountain gorilla babies, in what the country hopes will be an annual ceremony for one of its biggest tourist attractions.

Among those named Saturday were the only recorded set of twins to survive to the age of 1.

Conservation workers and researchers traditionally name primates they track after identifying each one based on the patterns formed by wrinkles on their faces.

But on Saturday, members of the public were invited to propose names for the gorillas. More than 20,000 visit the central African nation each year, and the gorillas are the main draw.

President Paul Kagame and his wife named the twins Byishimo, meaning happiness, and Impano, or gift. They were born in May 2004.

Children from villages around the park proposed several names for each of the mountain gorilla infants, and an official chose one.

The names included Kunga, or peacemaker; Izuba, or sun; Isoni, or shy; Ubufatanye, or cooperation; Kubana, or living together; Icyerekezo, or vision; Inkurwa, or loved; and Itsinzi or victory.

"The naming ceremony reflects our culture. We do it in families in Rwanda when we name new babies," said Fidelle Ruzigandekwa, head of the Rwanda Wildlife Agency.

The ceremony included traditional dances by warriors armed with sticks resembling spears and poems praising development projects financed by revenue from mountain gorilla tracking.

There are no mountain gorillas in captivity, and all of them - 380 at last count - live in central Africa. The animals were made famous by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" about Dian Fossey, who studied them in northeastern Rwanda in the 1960s and documented her work in a book by the same name.

The birth of the twins in May 2004 - only the third ever recorded - delighted conservation experts.

In 1986, the first recorded pair of twins died after just nine days. Of the second pair, born in 1991, one infant died within a month. The other survived to adulthood, only to be killed by poachers attempting to steal a baby gorilla in 2002.

Gorilla troops are ferociously protective of their young and poachers often have to kill mothers and other adults to steal babies.

For Rwanda, conservation of mountain gorillas is more than simply preserving the last of the world's largest primates. The gorillas are the country's main tourist attraction.

Their conservation is an opportunity for the small African country to heal from the 1994 genocide in which more than half a million Tutsi ethnic minority and politically moderate Hutus were killed in a 100-day slaughter.

Mountain gorillas "play an essential role in contributing to the positive image of Rwanda and act as ambassadors on the international scene by raising the profile of the country," said Chantal Rosette Rugamba, head of the Rwanda Tourism Board.

"Gorillas act as a fundamental engine for the national economy," said Rugamba.

Officials said tourism generated $2.5 million for Rwanda and is the country's third-largest generator of foreign currency.

Volcanoes National Park, Africa's first, was established by Rwanda's Belgian colonial rulers in 1925 after Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History made a plea to protect the gorillas.

It lies on the Rwandan side of a mountain range that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. Adjacent parks in Congo and Uganda are both known as Virunga National Park. The three parks are home to the world's entire mountain gorilla population.

A census conducted in late 2003 found that the number was up 17 percent since the last count 15 years earlier.


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Photographs of the 30 mountain gorilla babies: