Rafiki is Swahili for friend. A mountain gorilla at the Nkuringo sector went by the moniker - Rafiki. The 25-year-old lost his life to a poacher in May. His family and community continue to mourn and celebrate the largely jovial moments they enjoyed.
The gentle and amiable silverback made memories for tourists worthwhile. He left a number of widows and children.
In mourning their beloved, there were erratic movements among the jungle friends, perhaps, they were pondering on the mystery of death.
“The group was quite unstable for some time,” says John Justice Tibesigwa, the senior warden in charge of the southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You might want to know that mountain gorillas have 98 per cent human DNA. At the time of meeting his death, Rafiki led a troop of 17 individuals.
“When Covid-19 broke out and the lockdown that followed thereafter, we had to close the gorilla parks to tourists. The communities which live in these areas were mainly dependent on tourism as a major source of their welfare,” Tibesigwa explains.
“With the closure and suspension of tourism, the communities were left with no meaningful alternative means of livelihood, which resulted in increased illegal wildlife activities such as poaching.”
That is how, Rafiki, the silverback, leader of the Nkuringo Gorilla Group in Bwindi, met his death.
Bwindi, also listed by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as a heritage site, is managed under Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). It is home to the sought-after mountain gorillas, a tourism product shared between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The rangers role
You would have to give it to the rangers who constantly comb the thickets in protection of the wildlife. Underscoring the role and life of rangers and guides, Tibesigwa explains that they serve to protect wildlife and resources therein.
In support of their conservation efforts and as a token of encouragement, tourists under the umbrella association dubbed ‘Friends of Rafiki’ have donated foodstuff items, gumboots and solar lamps to the rangers and tour guides of Nkuringo and Rushaga.
Lydia Nandudu, the Nkuringo Walking Safaris proprietor, with her team delivered the items on Tuesday.
Tibesigwa adds that rangers wake up by 6am, report for duty where they are deployed. They are briefed before they pick their guns, field gear, including warm clothing then proceed to the forest to conduct routine patrols to ensure there are no illegal activities taking place in the national parks. Base patrols take a full day while extended ones can last up to seven days and nights with rangers camping at different locations.
“There are rangers that visit communities to conduct community conservation education so that they appreciate and understand that wildlife resources are important and can be used without extracting them from their habitats. We can take tourists there and make money,” Tibesigwa explains.
He says the intention of the poacher was not to kill the gorillas but in search of dickers and bush pigs. In the process, he met the mountain gorilla and in the interaction, the poacher killed it.
A poacher who confessed to killing Rafiki got 11 years in jail on Thursday, on charges of illegally entering a protected area and killing a gorilla, among other charges.
“We are relieved that Rafiki has received justice and this should serve as an example to other people who kill wildlife,” Sam Mwandha, Uganda Wildlife Authority’s executive director, said in a statement released on Thursday. “If one person kills wildlife, we all lose.”
With Rafiki gone, Rwamutwe, a black back has taken over the reins of power.
In the southern sector, gorilla tourism started in 2004 after habituating Nkuringo as the first group in 1997. The southern sector of Nkuringo and Rushaga has 11 troops. One more is being habituated and yet to be included on the sector.
Tibesigwa on the other hand, calls upon local and international tourists to visit as soon as lockdown is lifted.
Nkuringo is on the southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the Kisoro side. The other areas of the park are in Rubanda and Kanungu districts.
Rafiki is the first mountain gorillas lost to poaching. To track gorillas, Ugandans pay Shs250, 000, $600 for resident foreigners and $700 for non-residents of East Africa. In addition to mountain gorillas, Bwindi is home to chimpanzees, elephants, plant and tree species.