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Tracker Barabwiriza Remembered

March 21, 2014

Tracker Barabwiriza Remembered

Faustin Barabwariza and former KRC director David Watts, Ph.D.A long-time colleague and friend of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Faustin Barabwiriza, passed away on March 20 after a short illness. Barabwiriza worked with our founder, Dian Fossey, and spent nearly four decades working with mountain gorillas until his retirement in 2010. Even after his departure from the field, Barabwiriza remained a member of the Karisoke family and regularly participated in events organized by the Fossey Fund. 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 said in an interview in 2011. “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 forest, but the thrills were immense, Barabwiriza recalled.

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,” Barabwiriza recalled. 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.

The twenty-first century

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 position evolved and trackers faced new challenges. They began to collect much more detailed reports in the field, requiring greater concentration. 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. After his retirement, he expressed that he felt he was leaving 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.

Barabwiriza's retirement party  “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.”

Karisoke Director Felix Ndagijimana also has many fond memories of working with Barabwiriza. He says, “His dedication was just unmatched. So far I haven't seen any tracker who loved his job more than Barabwiriza.”

Ndagijimana recalls his first visit to Beetsme’s group with Barabwiriza. He learned that day that Barabwiriza had worked for such a long time with Beetsme’s group that it seemed as if the gorillas considered him to be a member of their group. When Beetsme’s group was splitting, silverback Rano led two females to an area of the forest that was very difficult to access, at the top of Mount Bisoke. Barabwiriza was the only person who knew the area well, and Ndagijimana joined him to search for the gorillas. The group had not ranged in the area for nearly a decade, but incredibly, Barabwiriza could still remember all of the forest paths well, including which led to ravines, and which could be used to get home. They found Rano that day, with Barabwiriza’s help.

His legacy

Ndagijimana says, “We will always remember Barabwiriza by his dedication and love for his work and the gorillas. He trained, mentored and helped many of us at Karisoke including past and current trackers and researchers.”

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