2009 Whitley Gold Award winner, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, is Founder and CEO of the NGO, Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH); An organisation dedicated to strengthening wildlife conservation and human healthcare in and around Uganda’s National Parks through innovative and mutually beneficial action.
Below is Gladys’s obituary for Ruhondeza, Uganda’s oldest silverback and leader of the first habituated tourism gorilla family in Uganda, who died on 27th June 2012 aged 50.
Message from CTPH Founder and CEO, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka
Ruhondeza, the most famous mountain gorilla in Bwindi died on 27th June 2012. Though he was over 50 years old, it was a great shock and loss to Ugandans and the international community.
Ruhondeza, the lead silverback of Mubare, the first tourist habituated group in Bwindi, will be remembered for his outstanding leadership of 20 years, which enabled gorilla ecotourism to develop and flourish in Uganda resulting in significant revenue for Uganda Wildlife Authority and local communities who share a fragile habitat with the critically endangered mountain gorillas. When gorilla ecotourism began in 1992, his group was the largest with 17 members, but slowly reduced till five when he was overthrown.
At the time of his death, Ruhondeza had become a solitary male, living on community land in Kyumbugushu village. Ruhondeza became a solitary male four months before his death when the four members of his group were taken over by another wild silverback. However, just before he died, his son, called Kanyonyi managed to fight and get back the group members, as well as, add another adult female from another tourist habituated group, Rushegura, bringing the Mubare group size up to seven.
I checked on Ruhondeza in May, a few weeks before he died together with one ranger five other members of the Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) team, and a Human and Gorilla Conflict Resolution (HUGO) team member. Ruhondeza seemed fairly active, though very shy and wanting to be left alone. Though Ruhondeza had destroyed a few banana crops, we convinced the community through our Community Conservation Health Volunteers to tolerate and respect him since he had generated so much revenue for them, by allowing tourists to visit his group. They appreciated this and suggested that he is left alone, but followed every day by the Human and Gorilla Conflict resolution team (HUGO) community volunteers, who together with the park rangers and trackers followed him until his death.
I went to visit Ruhondeza’ s grave this past week. Plans are underway to put a monument at the gravesite symbolizing the success of gorilla ecotourism in Uganda. Ecotourism has resulted not only in income for operational costs to maintain wildlife conservation efforts, but also towards sustainable livelihoods for the local communities. It is notable that members of the Bwindi local community were very touched and have been visiting the grave to pay their last respects.
During my time as UWA veterinary Officer, I performed a successful operation in 1998 to treat a rectal prolapse in Kahara, the older sister of Kanyonyi, who was an infant at the time. It is amazing that he is now heading the Mubare group and successfully taken over from his famous father, Ruhondeza.
It is a conservation success story because Ruhondeza did not die prematurely of poaching or human related disease, and more importantly over the past 20 years helped to bring about a long lasting partnership between Uganda Wildlife Authority and the surrounding local communities. Ruhondeza Rest in Peace.