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Faustin Barabwiriza: Fearless, Dedicated Tracker

April 8, 2011

Faustin Barabwiriza: A Fearless and Dedicated Tracker

Barabwiriza with David Watts, former Karisoke™ directorThe Karisoke™ Research Center recently honored the retirement of our longest-serving staff member. After nearly four decades on the job, Faustin Barabwiriza donned the tracker’s uniform one last time, before leaving the forest and the gorillas he loved and faithfully served. He is celebrated as a fearless man who knew the gorillas better than anyone.

The years with Fossey

Barabwiriza grew up in Nyarugina village, not far from the misty slopes of the Virungas. During his teens, in the late ‘60s, he kept hearing about the mzungu (i.e. ‘white’) woman who had set up camp in the forest and was studying the elusive gorillas. He was so intrigued that he went to get a job there. For a while he was in charge of collecting firewood and supplies, until one day he got the chance to accompany Fossey herself in the forest.

“It all changed from that moment on,” he says. “She realized I was good at tracking, so she promoted me.” The job was not at all easy, and neither was life in the damp, cold Hagenia forest, but the thrills were immense, Barabwiriza recalls.

On several occasions Barabwiriza found trapped animals and had to intervene and cut the ropes, with the gorillas in agony and therefore aggressive. He was never afraid of stepping in, though, as his dedication to protect and save these animals knew no limits. On the fateful day when Digit was killed he was on leave, but was called immediately to help find the perpetrators. He was also away on Dec. 26, 1985, when Fossey was found dead in her cabin. As the Karisoke staff as well as others were suspects, he was among those rounded up. His sadness was overwhelming.

“It was a terrible moment in my life, but I knew I couldn’t give up. I had lost my teacher, but I had to go on.” As soon as he was cleared he returned to his job. He was by now a very experienced tracker, spending more and more time monitoring and protecting the gorillas in Beetsme’s Group.

After the war, still close to the gorillas

In the 1990s, as civil war ravaged the country and the Karisoke site in the forest was destroyed, Barabwiriza and the rest of the staff had to leave the gorillas behind. He worked for a while as a tracker in Uganda, in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, but came back to the Virungas as soon as the situation allowed. To his surprise and great happiness his beloved gorillas had survived, and Beetsme’s group accepted him back as if he had left only the day before. Karisoke had moved its headquarters to the town of Ruhengeri, but Barabwiriza felt the urge to stay closer to the gorillas and make sure they were alright, so he started spending some of his nights in the forest, a few meters away from the nest sites.

He developed a special bond with Titus, whom he had witnessed growing from a tender age into the legendary silverback the whole world eventually came to know. “Titus was unique. He was an amazing leader, who managed the other gorillas in the group not by force, but with a remarkable calmness,” says Barabwiriza, staring blankly very far away. He then pauses for a long while, sifting through the countless memories of his dear friend, who passed away in 2009.

The twenty-first century

Barabwiriza receives retirement gift from Fossey Fund President and CEO Clare Richardson From the early 2000s on, as Karisoke drastically increased its research scope and more scientists from across the globe came to study the mountain gorillas, the tracker job changed. “The operations expanded, and everything became much better organized. We began to write very detailed reports, which required bigger concentration in the field,” he says.

They were also met with another challenge. The three traditional groups, named after Beetsme, Shinda and Pablo, tripled in number. New trackers were hired, and Barabwiriza used his extensive experience to train many of them in the field. Most of all he wanted to see dedication, punctuality and fearlessness in the young trackers as they came on board. He now feels that he will leave the gorillas in good hands.

Karisoke Gorilla Program Manager Veronica Vecellio, who worked in the field with Barabwiriza for almost five years until his retirement, talks about his special relationship with the gorillas.

“I was new here, and I remember one day when silverback Tuyizere charged. I was exposed and petrified, when Barabwiriza showed up from nowhere in front of me and just stretched his arm out to Tuyizere. He immediately stopped, tapped on Barabwiriza’s hand with his fingers, and then turned back and left. It was almost surreal. Barabwiriza was also fantastic at finding gorilla trails, so we always called him up when we could not find a group or a dispersed gorilla.”

His legacy

Karisoke Director Katie Fawcett reflects on Barabwiriza’s unparalleled contribution and legacy: “Barabwiriza is gifted with a rare talent to understand the very essence of another species’ life. Although he himself did not attend school, he has introduced generations of students, scientists and field staff to the world of gorillas and taught us more than you can ever learn in books. His hard work, passion and untiring dedication to the gorilla protection has led to success. It seems fitting that in the year he retires the Virunga gorilla population is the largest ever recorded, with 480 gorillas. He has given us a hard act to follow.”

For generations to come, Barabwiriza’s name will never cease to reverberate in the Virunga mountains, as trackers have already named a forest path in his honor.

Submitted by Sinziana Demian, Fossey Fund field communications