Tracker Profile: Faustin Barabwiriza
Faustin Barabwiriza was born in 1955, in Nyarugina, a sector of Kinigi Commune in Ruhengeri, at the bottom of the Virunga Volcanoes. Like many people in the region, his father was a grower of potatoes and beans, the two main crops and food staples in Rwanda. The family also owned some cows but, unlike other herders, never brought them in the park for grazing.
Faustin knew gorillas inhabited the forest and sometimes he could see them at the edge, when they were coming out to feed in the fields. Even with their impressive stature, these animals didn't scare him.
Faustin was 12 years old when Dian Fossey arrived in Rwanda and founded Karisoke Research Center. Since he lived near the park, he and others soon heard about this strange white woman who had settled in the forest to study gorillas.
Hired by Dian Fossey
Pretty soon, like many other boys of his age, Faustin was hired as a porter, carrying luggage and supplies to Karisoke. He was present one day when one of the regular employees was fired, so Dian asked the others if this little teenager could replace that worker. They agreed and Faustin accepted the position, swearing to himself to do his job well and with respect for Dian. The year was 1971 and Faustin's new job was to be a woodcutter at Karisoke. A lot of wood was necessary to provide for all the camp houses, making the job difficult and tiring, but Faustin did it for two years.
In 1973, when the poachers were creating heavy losses in the gorilla population, Dian Fossey created anti-poaching patrols. Faustin got a promotion and became a member of one of these teams.
In 1975, Faustin reached the position he still holds today: gorilla tracker. At this time, the Karisoke researchers monitored more than the three gorilla groups tracked today. Faustin worked with a group called "Susa," although sometimes he was assigned to help out with other groups.
Mission of trackers
Back then, the job of the trackers involved finding the gorilla nests and the trails only. Fossey would not allow the trackers to approach or be seen by the gorillas. She felt this could increase the gorillas' susceptibility to poachers. Other researchers at Karisoke disagreed with this position, and, while Fossey was in the United States, trained the trackers to observe and file some reports on the gorillas.
Today, Faustin and his colleagues write daily reports, noting the places where they found the group, any health problems noted, demographic changes, intergroup encounters and certain behaviors. Their observations are an important and complementary part of the data collected in the field by the researchers.
Faustin stayed with the Susa group until an event in 1981 changed the gorilla group dynamics: Nunkie, the dominant silverback in one group, died, and the group split. Beetsme and Shinda, two young silverbacks, took advantage of this death and founded their own family.
At this point, Faustin was moved to the trackers for Beetsme's group, where he still works today. Among all the trackers, he is the person who knows Beetsme's group the best, including all of the individuals in it and their personalities and histories.
Dian Fossey killed and the arrest
When Dian Fossey was killed in December 1985, Faustin was with his family. Two days after the murder, the police came to his house and arrested him. Along with other Karisoke workers, he was suspected of being responsible and put in jail. Luckily, as their innocence was proved, they were released. Despite this unfortunate incident, the workers were saddened by Fossey's slaughter: She was their boss, she had given them work they liked (the first for many of them), and just before she was killed, she had prepared Christmas gifts for them.
Long-time Karisoke worker
Faustin now celebrates more than 30 years with Karisoke. For 20 years, he has been the chief tracker for Beetsme's group. He has worked with the many scientists and researchers who have come to Karisoke, and has also been a closer observer of many gorillas, witnessing births, life histories, and, occasionally, their deaths.
Sometimes he talks about gorillas to his children and explains the importance of their protection and conservation for the country, which he believes in strongly.
By Christelle Chamberlan