‘Rafiki’s trust was betrayed’: Q&A with conservationist Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

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  • In early June, rangers discovered the mutilated body of Rafiki, an endangered silverback mountain gorilla living at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda; four men have since been arrested on suspicion of poaching.
  • Rafiki led the Nkuringo gorilla group for the past 12 years, and he’d become a well-known individual to tourists visiting the park.
  • Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, one of the leading conservationists working to protect endangered mountain gorillas, says the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an upsurge of poaching in Bwindi, which helped pave the way to Rafiki’s death.
  • Rafiki and his group were also “habituated,” meaning they’d become accustomed to people. While this may have made it easier for poachers to kill him, gorilla habituation has allowed tourism to thrive in Uganda.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka first saw Rafiki in 2001 while conducting research for her master’s degree in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. At that time, Rafiki, a mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), was living in a group led by his father, Nkuringo. But when Nkuringo died, the fur on Rafiki’s back turned silver, and he eventually obtained the position as head of the aptly named Nkuringo gorilla group. He would go on to lead the group for 12 years. To tourists visiting Bwindi, the Nkuringo group was one of the favorite gorilla groups to watch, and Rafiki, which means “friend” in Swahili, became a well-known figure.

Kalema-Zikusoka, a scientist, veterinarian and founder and CEO of the NGO Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH), as well as one of the leading conservationists working to protect endangered mountain gorillas, said she kept close track of Rafiki over the past 15 years. She and the team at CTPH would collect fecal samples from the Nkuringo gorilla group every month to make sure they weren’t picking up parasites from the local human community and their livestock.

But Rafiki’s life recently came to a brutal end. On June 2, rangers found the gorilla’s body with a deep wound in his upper left abdomen. It appeared that a spear had pierced his internal organs, causing the gorilla to suffer a slow, painful death. Mountain gorillas are an endangered species and fully protected in Uganda, so killing one of these animals bears harsh penalties.

Veterinarian Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka with a ranger in Bwindi Impenetrable forest. Uganda, 2016. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

Authorities managed to quickly track down the people believed to be responsible, and on June 7, they arrested four individuals. When the team inspected the home of one of the suspected poachers, they found bush pig meat, as well as several hunting devices, “a spear, rope snares, wire snares, and a dog hunting bell,” according to a statement released by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). The poacher eventually said that he’d killed Rafiki in “self-defense.”

News of Rafiki’s death traveled around the world. As one of Uganda’s most loved mountain gorillas, he will be profoundly missed by the conservation, research and tourism communities, as well as by local Ugandans who live close to Bwindi. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka herself said that she and the CTPH staff were “truly saddened” by Rafiki’s death.

A few days after the report of Rafiki’s death, Mongabay spoke to Kalema-Zikusoka about the circumstances surrounding the famous gorilla’s killing, which could be due, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has halted tourism in Uganda, leading to economic distress in the local area and an uptick in poaching. Rafiki was also “habituated,” meaning he’d been trained to be comfortable around people, and this would have made it easy for poachers to approach and kill him, she said.

While Rafiki can’t be brought back, Kalema-Zikusoka says she hopes that Ugandan officials and community members will work together to improve rules that will help protect mountain gorillas in the future, and to ensure that gorilla tourism can safely continue.

Mongabay: Why was Rafiki such a loved figure in Uganda?

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka: Whenever you’d go to see the Nkuringo gorilla group, you’d see Rafiki. He had been leading the group for about 12 years, and before that, his father was heading the group.

This group took a long time to be habituated because they were always outside the park eating people’s crops. Bwindi park management eventually decided to buy some of the land to create a buffer zone, and then they finally let tourists start going to the group. So Rafiki has grown up seeing people for most of his life.

How exactly do you habituate a gorilla to human contact, and how long does it take?

Habituation can take up to two years. What’s involved is that people go to a group of gorillas, and you get as close as you can. And then [the gorillas] start charging. When they charge, you stop. The next day you go a bit closer, and they will keep charging. You continue to do this until they stop charging. Then you bring in other people … then they’ll start charging again. When they stop charging at new people, you know that the gorillas are ready for tourism.

It takes time to build that trust, and this is why it’s so upsetting with Rafiki. His group had built that trust … and Rafiki’s trust was betrayed by the human beings that they thought were good.

A member of the Nkuringo gorilla group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Image by Grain Connoisseur / Flickr.

What circumstances led to Rafiki’s death?

The poacher did not want to eat the gorilla or kill it. He went in to catch this small antelope called duiker and bush pigs. And they go in and set snares, then go in to pick up the animals in the snares. I think what happened is he came across Rafiki, and instead of avoiding Rafiki, he killed him. He claims that Rafiki attacked him, but Rafiki has never attacked anyone.

The thing about gorillas is that when you habituate them for tourism or research, it’s a big commitment. You have to make sure you follow them every day because now they have lost their fear of people, and they can’t tell the difference between someone who’s good and someone who’s bad. Rafiki was probably just going about his business with his group, and this guy just came across him. Maybe [the poacher] got scared and decided to spear him because he had never been that close to a gorilla, but the gorilla was not going to attack him — he was just used to being close to people.

Is this the downside of habituation — not being scared of poachers?

Yeah, that’s the disadvantage of habituating great apes, especially gorillas and chimpanzees. Once you win their trust, then they think all human beings are good, and that’s why we’ve always argued that you shouldn’t habituate all of the gorillas.

A baby gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, June 2017. Image by Grain Connoisseur / Flickr.

But habituation has allowed tourism to thrive in Uganda, correct?

Yes, it has enabled tourism to thrive and it has taken people out of poverty and has enabled the gorillas to survive because it gives an economic incentive for having the gorillas around. People are more willing to tolerate them.

Before gorilla tourism began, the only thing that people had was working on tea plantations as tea outgrowers. But when gorilla tourism began in 1993, people could get jobs, and they could sell food and accommodation to tourists. Some of the money from tourism also goes to the community — $10 from every gorilla permit, and 20% of the park entry fee. And so from that, the communities have really developed. When I first started working with gorillas as a student in 1994, and then in 1996 as the first veterinary officer at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, most people had grass-thatched houses, but now many of them have more permanent houses.

Has poaching gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We knew that poaching was going to go up when there were no tourists, because people are not getting as much money as they used to get, and they’re hungry. Some people used to farm before tourism began, but they gave up farming … because when you take one tourist trekking, and carry their bags, the amount of money you get on that one day is the same as someone else gets in a month. But now that there’s no tourism, because of the COVID-19 suspension … and also the lockdowns all over the world, people are really starting to feel it.

We told the rangers that they really had to be much more vigilant, and they were more vigilant. They stayed with the gorillas for as long as possible. There are other parts of the park that don’t have habituated gorilla groups, and we told them to also patrol there. The poachers took their chances because they thought, ‘Oh [there are] no tourists. Maybe they’re not watching these groups so much.’ So they went in and set snares in the areas where these gorillas were ranging.

The Nkuringo gorilla group is also one of these groups that is always ranging outside the park. It still ranges near the buffer zone, which is bordering the park, and this particular group has even been outside of the park and into community land at least once during COVID-19.

The CTPH team with the Gorilla Guardians, a group of community volunteers trained to monitor and protect the gorillas. Image by CTPH.

How are some people in Uganda making a living right now?

Most people in Bwindi own land, but they abandoned farming to focus on tourism. So we’re telling people to go back to farming because that’s the only way that they can possibly survive. We have a social enterprise called Gorilla Conservation Coffee through our NGO, Conservation Through Public Health, and we were supporting coffee farmers because we realized that not everybody was benefiting from tourism. We sold mainly to tourists — they were the biggest customer — because a lot of lodges bought the coffee and sold it to their tourists, and the tourists felt happy to support the local community and the local farmers. But now that the tourists are gone, the sales have really gone down, but what we did was get somebody from the U.K., Vicky Weddell from Moneyrow Beans, during the last month. She’s even placed another order this month. This is helping to keep people going in the absence of tourism. We’re trying to tell people … to look at other sources of livelihood so they are not dependent on tourists.

And what will happen to the Nkuringo gorilla group now that Rafiki is gone?

At the moment, the group is just as it is without a leader, but the oldest adult male may eventually take over the group. We don’t know yet. We’re still watching to see. Occasionally, a wild silverback will come and try and take over the group, but the Nkuringo gorilla group has three adult males, so hopefully between them, there won’t be a wild, older male coming to take over the group.

Kalema-Zikusoka educating the community on conservation and public health. Image by CTPH.

Any idea when tourism will pick back up?

Parks that don’t have primates have opened, but nobody’s going. I think it’s a bit like in Europe — a lot of people have suffered and have been shaken by COVID-19. With primate tourism, we don’t know when it’s going to reopen. The minister of health is currently telling everybody to wear masks because the COVID-19 rates are still going up as they’re trying to open the economy a little bit, so right now, it’s still not very stable.

What would happen if a gorilla contracted COVID-19?

It would be a total disaster because gorillas are very close knit, and they live in a family group. They’re always together and they’re always grooming each other. So they don’t do any social distancing at all. If one gorilla gets it, the rest are going to get it. Also, the gorillas have the same ACE2 protein receptors like humans, which means that they can easily get COVID-19 in the same way that humans can get it, and they would experience similar effects as humans.

Are there any upsides to the pandemic?

I think the silver lining that has come out of COVID-19 is that it’s helping the rules to be upgraded. I was involved in two studies with students from Ohio University and the University of Kent, and both studies show that tourists are willing to wear masks to protect the gorillas, and the Ohio University study showed that 98% of the time, tourists viewed gorillas at a distance of less than 7 meters [23 feet]. People have been getting a bit relaxed about it. But now, because of COVID-19, it’s a wake-up call that it’s actually very dangerous for tourists to get too close to gorillas, and we shouldn’t have something like this happening.

An adult male black-back gorilla in Bwindi. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur / Unbound Project.

One thing that I can say is, I’ve been encouraged to hear that tourists themselves are demanding that the gorillas are safe, and that when they come to visit them again, they don’t want to make them sick. Everybody was worried that the tourists were going to get offended if we told them to wear masks, but now the tourists themselves are saying, ‘We want to book our permits to come back … on the condition that we won’t make the gorillas sick.’

People are becoming more responsible about the environment and nature, which is something that’s really good. And the more that we can educate the people, the future tourists are going to come to track these animals and provide a sustainable income to the communities, and the gorillas will be safe and protected. But also, we realize that we can’t only depend on tourism … to sustain conservation. We have to think of other ways. So COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for that.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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