Photo: Alyssa Favreau
Ubukwe yawns, stretches and leans in for a cuddle from her mother. At just three months old, the infant is bored by anything that doesn’t involve breastfeeding or basking in the Rwandan sun. She, however, has my full attention. Ubukwe is something of a star in these parts: along with the 17 other baby mountain gorillas born in Volcanoes National Park this year, she has just been named.
Kwita Izina, the annual naming festival that celebrates the park’s newest generation of gorillas, is a national affair. I heard about it as soon as I arrived in Kigali, 100 or so kilometres away, but I am unprepared for the crowd of thousands. Staffers mistakenly shuffle me off into the VIP area, despite my protests that a scruffy 24-year-old in cargo pants won’t be found on the invite list.
I’m much better equipped for gorilla trekking, which I do a couple of days later, heading out from my hotel in the nearby town of Kinigi at 6:30 a.m. After several hours of trudging through a dense network of vines, bamboo and twisting trees, I am out of breath and covered in stinging-nettle welts. Our 15-person band, made up of tourists, guides and armed trackers, happens upon the apes between their feeding and rest times. We have found the Titus group.
In Gorillas in the Mist, the chronicle of her 16 years spent conducting research in Volcanoes, American zoologist and conservationist Dian Fossey detailed at length her interactions with Titus, a gregarious toddler. The family I’m observing-the one founded by that once-playful gorilla-counts two females, four infants and four males. As I watch them wander around the clearing, roughhousing and searching for food, I both want to stay here forever and feel guilty for intruding.
But tourism is what has helped these endangered giants thrive. Over the past decade, the park’s revenues have totalled nearly US$300 million; more than 85 per cent of that comes directly from gorilla trekking. A portion of that money is then poured back into the park and its surrounding communities. There are now 480 apes living in the Virunga massif, the volcano range that straddles Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda-almost twice the number that existed in the early 1980s, when Fossey was based in these mountains.
At Kwita Izina, the monikers bestowed on the new arrivals reflect the hope drawn from the conservation efforts (one baby’s name, translated, means “it is possible”) and the importance of continuing the work (“protect me”). With her tiny apple-doll face, Ubukwe is so adorable that I miss her the minute I leave. Her name means “marriage,” perhaps the most fitting tribute to the unlikely alliance between tourists and conservationists here.