For the first time in nine years, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is celebrating the birth of a male Western Lowland Gorilla. The baby boy was born on April 15 and has been named Moke [Mo-KEY], which means “junior” or “little one” in the Lingala language.
The 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 (SSP).
Keepers have observed Calaya nursing the clinging infant, and they are cautiously optimistic that the newborn will thrive. The Great Ape House is currently closed to provide Calaya a private space to bond with her infant.
Using a human pregnancy test in the Fall of 2017, keepers confirmed that Calaya had successfully conceived. The team also trained Calaya to participate voluntarily in ultrasounds, so they have been able to monitor fetal growth and development throughout the pregnancy. On November 3, the Zoo finally announced her pregnancy and has been providing updates via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #GorillaStory. The Zoo will continue to share updates, photos and videos of the infant’s development.
“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 had been acclimating Calaya to the experiences of motherhood and caring for an 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.”
Gorillas live in groups (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.
Native to Africa, Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) live in the forests of Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Cameroon, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Congo.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies 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 individuals has decreased by 60 percent.
Although it is not yet known when Calaya and Moke will be on-exhibit, visitors can see the other members of the troop: Baraka, Mandara, Kwame, Kojo and Kibibi. Zoo visitors can also meet a great ape keeper to learn about the fascinating world of Gorillas at 11:30 a.m. daily.