- - Thursday, June 16, 2011

KIGALI, RWANDA — In 1988, a small group of almost-extinct mountain gorillas in volcano ranges straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo became movie stars.

Since then, not much has changed about the Rwandan parkland featured in “Gorillas in the Mist.” But a lot has changed for the gorillas.

No longer movie stars, mountain gorillas have more than tripled in population to more than 750, but their species remains one of the rarest on earth.

Tens of thousands of people, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, plan to celebrate the growing population on Saturday.

Every year, Rwandans hold what feels like a national holiday called “Kwita Izina” - an adaptation of a traditional naming ceremony held especially for gorillas.

This year, 22 baby gorillas will be named - the largest batch since the event began seven years ago.

Planners say this year’s ceremony is especially happy because of the unusual births of two sets of twins since last year’s naming ceremony. Seven gorillas have given birth to twins since the animals started being monitored in the 1960s, but rarely do the offspring survive.

Rica Rwigamba, head of tourism and conservation at the Rwanda Development Board, said the four twins - three males and one female - appear to be doing fine, and two will be named at Saturday’s ceremony. The other two, born May 27, will be named at Kwita Izina 2012.

Ms. Rwigamba said gorillas have served as the mainstay of the country’s tourism industry, which caters to high-end, eco-friendly visitors and collected $200 million in 2010.

“Mountain gorillas [are] the anchor product that Rwanda is known for,” she said in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda are treated like national heroes, accounting for 90 percent of the country’s tourism revenue.

Visitors pay $500 to see the gorillas, excluding the price of travel, food and lodging. Gorilla permits often sell out months in advance because any given family of gorillas in Rwanda is allowed a maximum of eight visitors a day.

Still, the gorillas live practically on top of some of the most crowded and poorest areas in the region, leaving the animals constantly vulnerable to encroachment, human diseases and poachers.

“It’s still a very, very delicate, small population,” said Dr. Mike Cranfield, executive director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, an organization that has been providing health care to the gorillas since the mid-1980s. “There is no buffer zone around it.”

Known as one of the organization’s “gorilla doctors,” Dr. Cranfield said the gorilla population is growing rapidly and has increased by 26 percent in the past seven years.

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