There’s one more Western lowland gorilla in the world

For the first time in nine years, primate staff at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are celebrating the birth of a male western lowland gorilla. He was born at 6:25 p.m. April 15 and is named Moke [Mo-KEY], which means “junior” or “little one” in the Lingala language. The parents—15 year old mother Calaya and 26-year-old father Baraka—bred in summer 2017 following a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan


Mother and infant western lowland gorilla

Mother Calaya and one-day-old Moke on April 16, 2018. (Photo courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo)

In fall 2017, animal keepers confirmed that Calaya had successfully conceived using a common human pregnancy test. Because the team trained Calaya to participate voluntarily in ultrasounds, they have been able to monitor fetal growth and development throughout the pregnancy. The Zoo announced her pregnancy Nov. 3 and since has provided updates on Calaya via FacebookTwitter and Instagram using the hashtag #GorillaStory. It will continue to share updates, photos and videos of the infant as news breaks.

“The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our Zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole,” said Meredith Bastian, curator of primates. “The primate team’s goal was to set Calaya up for success as best we could, given that she is a first-time mother. Doing so required great patience and dedication on the part of my team, and I am very proud of them and Calaya.”

As part of the preparation for all possible scenarios, staff have been acclimating Calaya to the experiences of motherhood to enhance the likelihood she will care for her infant. Animal keeper Melba Brown noticed that Calaya learned best by watching the other gorillas train and repeating those actions. This breakthrough helped Brown bond with Calaya and gain her trust. The gorilla quickly mastered basic husbandry behaviors, which formed the basis for more complicated maternal training, including ultrasounds, urinating on cue for hormone analysis and breast manipulation for lactation assessments and nutrient analysis. Brown helped to reinforce Calaya’s maternal behaviors by presenting her with photos of mother gorillas and giving her a plush gorilla toy to gently touch and kiss. Brown also trained Calaya to present her chest so keepers could place the plush gorilla up to her breast to “nurse.”

“This infant’s arrival triggers many emotions—joy, excitement, relief—and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off,” said Brown. “We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together.”

Since the birth, Calaya and her newborn haves been resting and bonding in the Great Ape House. According to the primate team, Calaya is providing excellent care to Moke and has been nursing and cradling him closely.

Gorillas live in groups, called troops, that are typically composed of a silverback male, one or more blackback males, several adult females and their infant and juvenile offspring. Calaya resides in a mixed-sex gorilla troop with Baraka, an adult female named Mandara and a sub-adult female named Kibibi. Silverback brothers, Kwame and Kojo, live together in a bachelor troop. In the event that Calaya was unwilling or unable to care for her infant, keepers prepared Mandara, an experienced mother of six, to act as a foster mother as a precaution. Previously, Mandara raised Baraka as a foster offspring shortly after his birth.

The other gorillas in the troop are curious about the new arrival! While Baraka has been “laid-back” toward his offspring, Mandara and Kibibi have shown a lot of interest in Moke. Calaya has allowed them to approach her to get a closer look at Moke while he nurses and sleeps.

Native to Africa, western lowland gorillas live in the forests of Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Congo. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the western lowland gorilla as critically endangered due to disease and poaching. Scientists estimate that in the past 20 to 25 years, the number of wild western lowland gorillas has decreased by 60 percent.If the infant is healthy and thrives. The Zoo’s Great Ape House has reopened to visitors and, as always, Calaya and Moke, along with the Zoo’s other gorillas—Baraka, Mandara, Kwame, Kojo and Kibibi—have a choice among various rooms in the exhibit, some of which are not open to public view.

Posted: 17 April 2018
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