Photograph by Dave Stevenson, Rex Features via AP

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This young mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park is one of a population that has nearly doubled in number since the 1980s.

Photograph by Dave Stevenson, Rex Features via AP

As Mountain Gorillas Bounce Back, Rwanda Names Gorilla Newborns

Rwanda holds naming ceremony for baby gorillas born over the past year.

Jean-Felix Kinani was far from center stage Tuesday when Rwanda held its tenth annual Kwita Izina, the national naming ceremony for baby mountain gorillas born during the past 12 months. Yet the 18 baby gorillas named at the event owe much to his team of veterinarians.

Kinani, 42, is the head Rwanda veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the health of the world's 880 remaining mountain gorillas—the iconic animals found in Rwanda, Uganda, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the only great apes on Earth whose numbers are increasing.

Since 2005, when Rwanda's tourism authorities launched the event—adapted from a centuries-old human baby naming tradition—Kinani has witnessed the naming of 163 Rwanda-born primates.

This year's infants, whose Kinyarwanda-language names were announced by a range of local and international diplomats, conservationists, and tourism officials, included Inzozi ("dreams"), Twiyubake ("self-reliance"), Ndengera ("protect me"), and Kundurwanda ("love Rwanda").

Kinani, who spends two days a week monitoring gorillas in the forest, claims to know all the animals.

"Sometimes it's difficult to recognize them, because some of them look the same," he says. "But if I go in a group, I know who I will find, and I can tell you their life story. Gorillas are like my brothers, my sisters."

One Gorilla at a Time

Thirty years ago, experts feared the mountain gorilla subspecies could be headed toward extinction. A 1981 census in the tri-country Virunga massif, home to one of two distinct mountain gorilla populations, had recorded an all-time low of 254 individuals. The famed gorilla researcher Dian Fossey spent years working to raise awareness about the threats the animals faced, including poaching and respiratory illnesses she suspected were transmitted by humans. Before her murder in 1985, Fossey had lobbied for the creation of a clinic to treat wounded and sick mountain gorillas.

The next year, Ruth Morris Keesling, an American wildlife enthusiast, founded the Volcanoes Veterinary Clinic in Rwanda—a precursor to the present-day Gorilla Doctors. The Virunga-based clinic began with one resident expatriate doctor, James Foster, an American who focused exclusively on emergency interventions. Since then, the project has grown to include 15 veterinarians, 14 of whom are native to the region. It has also added a component of preventive care and expanded to cover the second mountain gorilla population in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, as well as eastern lowland gorillas in the DRC.

Over time, rising rates of gorilla habituation, a consequence of both research and tourism, allowed the vets to monitor the health of more animals and to capture those in need of lifesaving interventions. Today, Kinani estimates that he and his team respond to life-threatening situations once a month—most commonly, gorillas caught in snares intended to trap buffalo or antelope or those ill with dangerous respiratory infections. (Video: Gorilla Doctors team rescues a baby gorilla from a poacher's snare.)

Although humans can do little to stop the most common source of mountain gorilla mortality—the infanticide that occurs when an adult male silverback asserts dominance over a group—data suggest that close to three decades of veterinary work have been effective. One 2011 study, which tracked numbers in the Virunga massif from 1967 to 2008, found an annual population growth rate of 4.1 percent for habituated gorillas, versus an annual decline of 0.7 percent for unhabituated animals. The authors say the findings confirm the effectiveness of what they call "extreme conservation measures," including close monitoring of animals and veterinary care.

According to the report, "veterinary interventions could account for up to 40 percent of the difference in growth rates between habituated versus unhabituated gorillas, with the remaining difference likely arising from greater protection against poachers."

Overall, Virunga's gorillas have nearly doubled in number since their 1980s low, reaching 480 in 2010, the time of the last census. Similar growth has been observed in Bwindi, where numbers rose from approximately 300 in 1997 to 400 in 2011.

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Traditional Intore dancers perform at Rwanda's tenth annual Kwita Izina ceremony on July 1, 2014.

"One Health" Medicine

As Kwita Izina makes evident, Gorilla Doctors' work is not just about the region's famed primates.

Held at Volcanoes National Park's Kinigi headquarters, in the shadows of the Virungas' Mount Sabyinyo, this year's event drew nearly 500 international guests and an estimated 40,000 local residents, drawn to entertainment by traditional Intore dancers, Rwandan pop stars, and a procession of children in gorilla suits, who served as stand-ins for the babies of honor, which remained in the nearby mountain forests.

Aside from celebrating the mountain gorillas' revival, the event also recognizes the animals' importance to Rwanda's growing tourism sector, which generated $294 million in 2013, up from $62 million in 2000. As Valentine Rugwabiza, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, told Kwita Izina guests, the Rwandan government invests 5 percent of all profits from its national parks in adjacent communities, where the money is used to construct roads, schools, and other local projects.

In Kinigi and other communities in the Virungas—an area home to one of the highest rural population densities on Earth—residents also benefit from Gorilla Doctors' presence. With humans and gorillas living so close, and the primates susceptible to human-borne diseases, the organization works according to a "one health" philosophy, which emphasizes the integrated nature of all species, including humans, that make up the Virunga ecosystem. As part of its "one health" approach, the organization facilitates annual health screenings for park rangers and staff, provides rabies vaccinations for domesticated dogs and cats, and monitors the health of livestock and other wildlife, with an eye toward potentially risky pathogens.

As Jan Ramer, Gorilla Doctors' regional manager, explains, it's all part of an effort to mitigate human-wildlife conflict and stay a step ahead of a possible outbreak that—recent increases in the gorilla population notwithstanding—could prove disastrous.

"Right now, there are 880 left on Earth, in two populations," Ramer says. "Thankfully, all the eggs are in two baskets. But if an infectious disease—for example, measles—raged through, it could decimate the population. That's why we're being so vigilant."

Jon Rosen is a freelance journalist based in Kigali, Rwanda. Last month he profiled "The Battle for Africa's Oldest National Park."