This past September, I was invited by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to participate in 10-day trip to Rwanda as part of a delegation of 12 shapers of public opinion to closely examine the country’s sustainable tourism regarding the issues of nature and animal conservation, specifically the conservation of mountain gorillas.
As director of The Dead Sea Revival Project NGO, I have helped Israel to specialize in branding and promoting environmental tourism in the Dead Sea – in particular, awareness boat excursions there.
For the past two years, since the Abraham Accords were signed, the NGO has been advocating for the development of local and regional environmental tourism that promotes water diplomacy in the region as a necessary step for saving the Dead Sea, one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water, which is shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
With this background, I came to experience how Rwanda’s sustainable tourism has become a regional and global solution and model for nature conservation and saving world treasures, such as the mountain gorillas, while building the country’s resilience.
I learned how a country succeeded in making a complete turnaround, starting its journey only in 2001 – six years of chaos and civil wars after the genocide – and returning to basics through conservation and restoration of nature, uniting the people of Rwanda around this issue.
In order to protect wild animals in danger of extinction, the local population living alongside the wild animals must be mobilized and integrated, and state laws must be established in the context of conflicts between wild animals and their human neighbors.
The population of mountain gorillas in Rwanda is steadily increasing, today having reached 1,063.
In 2018, they were regarded as an endangered species, as opposed to “critically endangered,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sustainable tourism has not only improved the conditions of the country’s wildlife but has also raised the standard of living of its residents. Rwanda’s tourism accounted for 50% of its revenue in 2019.
Aside from the economic well-being and improvement of the local population’s quality of life, it is evident that awareness about preserving nature and wildlife has permeated all levels of the population, which gives hope to future generations.
Throughout the Rwandan journey, it was fascinating to see the relations between the State of Israel and the Israelis who took the lead in the land-locked and lake-filled country’s admirable dedication to nature conservation and national resilience.
Kwita Izina: Gorilla baby-naming ceremony
It was exciting to see the enthusiasm of Rwandans of all strata and ages walking miles to take part in the Kwita Izina festival. The mass baby gorilla-naming event, which boasted up to 50,000 participants, has become one of Africa’s largest conservation festivals.
Before the naming ceremony, local pop singers took to the huge stage. With a backdrop of a 15-meter straw sculpture of a gorilla family behind them, they enthused the crowd with their music.
I made my way through the Rwandan crowd, sharing in the excitement of the masses of celebrators.
Men and women, young and old all gathered around, proudly waving their Rwandan and Kwita Izina flags. I empathized with the people, especially since the previous day I had visited the Genocide Museum in the capital Kigali and understood the horrific background of the country I was about to begin to explore, meeting its people so that I could share their stories with the world.
Every year, the roster of people selected to give names to the baby gorillas is comprised of world leaders, philanthropists and champions of conservation, sports, music and fashion from around the world. This year, King Charles (who was still Prince Charles at the time) was the first honoree to name a baby gorilla:
“The name I give is Ubwuzuzanye, which means ‘harmony’ because restoring harmony and balance between nature, people and the planet is the most critical issue facing humanity that we must deal with with extreme urgency... otherwise, these and other magnificent creatures and their precious habitats will be lost forever,” he said.
The ceremony is attended every year by Rwanda’s popular president Paul Kagame and his wife and other government officials. Kwita Izina is undoubtedly a public relations event, attracting photographers and journalists from around Africa and the world, whose main purpose is to promote Rwandan sustainable tourism, especially the conservation of mountain gorillas.
They need us – and we need them
During the five-hour ceremony, I sat with some local high school students, who explained to me that Rwandans are divided into 20 ancient tribes related to animals, such as cranes, frogs, tigers, eagles, hyenas and crows.
“Which tribe in Rwanda are the mountain gorillas?” I asked 17-year-old student Benny Nyogisobizu.
“The gorillas? They belong to all Rwandans. We Rwandans unite here once a year around the conservation of the gorillas. Since I was very young, I remember coming to these festivals... The gorillas need us to protect them, and we need the gorillas to protect ourselves,” he said.
The most essential lesson I learned is that it is mandatory that children learn from a young age about the value of conserving local wildlife.
This year, 20 people had been chosen to give names to the baby gorillas, and two of those people were Israelis.
One of them, Yitzhak Fisher, is chairman of the board of directors of the Rwanda Development Board, the main authority responsible for the success of the country in its sustainable tourism and the person currently responsible for all foreign investments in the country.
The name he gave the six-week-old baby gorilla was Intare, which means “lion.” He said, “Lion, in memory of my fatherin-law, a Holocaust survivor named Leo. The name was also chosen to recognize an important conservation milestone in Rwanda and the successful return of the lions to Akagera National Park.”
As Israel’s representative in this delegation to Rwanda, I was filled with pride that even here at a gorilla naming conservation event in Central Africa, you can find Israelis taking a leading role.
Ambassador Adam – Israel and Rwanda
At the ceremony, I also met Israel’s ambassador to Rwanda, Ron Adam, who had received the honor of being among the name givers a few years ago. I quickly discovered that Israel’s first ambassador to the country is quite popular in Rwanda, working the VIP crowd, shaking many hands, rubbing shoulders and giving hugs. He is one the few ambassadors who receive invitations to participate in many local and government events and initiatives throughout the country.
From the ambassador, I also learned that Rwanda is one of the countries that almost always votes in favor of Israel at the UN and that there is no opposition in the country toward the State of Israel.
Subsequent to the ceremony, upon Adam’s recommendation, I went to visit a joint agricultural project between Israel and Rwanda called The Center of Excellence for Horticulture Development. It was developed and promoted by Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (MASHAV), which began operations in 2016.
I received an overview and a private visit to the complex.
The project trains farmers and academic Rwandan students from around the country, using Israeli technologies in the field of agriculture and irrigation.
In recent years, over 800 Rwandans have studied modern agriculture in Israel, resulting in an increase of 50% in Rwanda’s fruit and vegetable and exports.
During our delegation tour, we met a fish farm supervisor who trains and educates the village communities on sustainable fishing and the conservation of fish species in order to return them to Lake Kivu, one of the largest lakes in Africa and one of the deepest freshwater reservoirs in the world.
While presenting his work to our delegation, Adam said that he had received his training at Kibbutz Nir David and studied at Kinneret College in 2018. He is still in contact with authorities in Israel, mainly through the enrichment seminars in which he still participates.
Lake Kivu is on the border between Congo and western Rwanda. In the center of the lake is a small rig and tower, which Israeli scientists from the Technion in Haifa helped build in order to extract natural gas from the bottom of the lake. Mainly used domestically, the gas has increased national electric kilowatt output by several percent. And the director of the electric company in Rwanda is Israeli.
Continuing on to Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda on the borders of Tanzania, our delegation went on a boat excursion to see the many wild animals in their natural habitat. The captain of the boat, Ndagijimana Innocent, is writing a book about the 26 orphaned elephants that were brought from South Africa to Rwanda for conservation. An Israeli named Shaked Levy is taking part in the production and distribution of the book. Levy is leading a development project in Rwanda called Wildlife Conservation and Education in which he plans to include a conservation center alongside an education center, a wildlife hospital, a research center and volunteer tourism.
Mountain gorilla trek in Volcano National Park
On my last day in Rwanda, I set out with seven others on a gorilla trek in the rain forest of Volcano National Park to meet the Fisher-named baby gorilla Intare to document and examine closely his natural environment, surrounded by 14 members of his gorilla family called Hirva, which means “lucky.”
After a few hours of walking and climbing in heavy mud, we arrived at the location of the Hirva gorilla family. We were directed to the spot where we were able to observe them.
In all Rwandan nature reserves, you see the local population living alongside the reservations and wild animals. The residents are introduced to regulations regarding wildlife encounters, such as government compensation for the loss of agricultural produce or farm animals due to wildlife invasion.
Rwanda managed to turn former poachers into national park trackers, guides and security guards of the reservations and protectors of wildlife. This is how they reduced the number of poachers by 75% in 10 years.
We had to wear masks so that we wouldn’t infect the gorillas, not only with COVID but even with a mild cold, which could greatly harm the gorilla family.
I was the first to enter the thicket of trees to see the gorillas and immediately spotted baby Intare cuddled by his mother. Right next to the mother was her four-year-old son, who was very curious about his baby brother, while also annoying him, and mom made sure to give him hugs and attention as well, just like a human mother would.
Not far from the three of them, the male silverback alpha was napping on a leaf litter with two females next to him and a oneand-a-half-year-old baby who was amusing himself by climbing on his family members’ backs, while being curious about the guests who had come to visit him and his family.
I was able to document and closely follow baby Intare, whose mane resembles a lion’s – making his name a perfect fit.
Visitors are required to keep 10 meters away from the gorillas – though sometimes, due to the topography, the encounter is much closer.
The maximum duration of a visit to a gorilla family is one hour, which you can do only once a day. The inspectors continue to watch them from afar and follow them until sunset.
I was amazed to discover how sensitive these mighty animals are to their environment, with any imbalance or climate change greatly affecting them. That is why you can only find mountain gorillas in the wild and not in zoos – because they simply do not survive there.
Climate change is harming baby gorillas first and foremost. Between 30% to 40% of babies do not survive until the age of six months. Unseasonal sandstorms or rain can greatly affect the fragile apes.
I will make it my mission to continue to follow the development and growth of baby Intare and his family, and implement the model of sustainable tourism to preserve the Dead Sea – our own world treasure.
The writer, a photojournalist, is director of the Dead Sea Revival Project. He has received recognition from National Geographic, CNN, NASA and the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.