The gorillas live at Durrell in a large enclosure that has a 2000sq metre (1/2 acre) grassy outdoor area containing many tree trunks and ropes for climbing. The ground is carefully landscaped to provide varied terrain and areas with a degree of privacy for the individuals to retreat to when squabbles break out. There is also a sizable pond and a waterfall system. A high wall surrounds the outdoor enclosure, but because the centre of the area is higher than the wall, from some areas it can look like the gorillas are sitting on a hill in the grounds and not in the enclosure at all. Indoors, where the gorillas sleep and seek shelter during poor weather, there is a glass-fronted public viewing area, partially covered by camouflage netting to allow the gorillas some degree of privacy. The area has multiple levels, climbing apparatus and artificial termite mounds for "behaviorul enrichment" when filled with a porridge and golden syrup mix, they give the gorillas a chance to practice their tool using skills. Wood-wool bedding material is given to the gorillas in the early evening, so they can make a new nest each night.
The world-renowned western lowland gorilla-breeding programme at Durrell had a rather humble and somewhat shaky beginning. The forest gorilla, N'pongo, arrived at the age of 2 in 1959 - when the Trust had just opened. In those early days there was no money to acquire a mate for her straight away (back then zoos did not loan out animals as they do now) and it was a further two years before "Nandi" arrived. The two young gorillas got on very well but not in the way the animal managers hoped - the eagerly awaited potential stud turned out to be a female also!
With no return or refund possible, the breeding programme had to go on hold until 1971, by which time the Trust's support had grown sufficiently for the purchase of "Jambo" a male from Basle Zoo in Switzerland. He was worth waiting for. Jambo was a complete gentleman and an immediate hit with the ladies. His 14 surviving offspring continue to make a valuable contribution to the captive gorilla population - most now have several offspring of their own. Jambo died in 1992, but is remembered by millions as the gentle giant who watched over Levan Merritt, a 4 year old boy who fell in the gorilla's enclosure in 1986. Jambo kept guard over Levan, touched him gently and make sure no other members of the gorilla group got close to him. Showing just how naturally gentle and carring these magnificent creatures truly are. Today there is a wondrful life-size bronze of Jambo keeping an eye on the gorilla enclosure, to check that Ya Kwanza, his successor is doing a good job as the new silverback of the gorilla group. Jersey’s gorilla group currently consists of Ya Kwanza, his 3 year old son Ya Pili and 4 adult females, dominant Kishka (28 years old), her 20 year old daughter Sakina, Bahasha (12 years old) and Hlala Kahilla (18 years old), the mother of Ya Pili (Ya Kwanza's son) and Mapema (Ya Kwanza's daughter).
In the wild, gorillas are free to move between groups, as they may simply be "happier" in a certain group. Like humans gorillas have different personalities and consequently some individuals may simply not get on because of something akin to a personality clash or a lack of chemistry. By cooperating with other zoos and exchanging animals, it is possible to mimic natural movements and create stable family groups, which maximises breeding programme success and prevents inbreeding. A close eye has to be kept on the social behaviour within a group, so that if all is not well, steps can be taken to avoid distress and injuries. When Ya Kwanza established himself as the silverback in Jersey, it became apparent that he and two of the females had not found each other to be in the least bit attractive. Hence G'Ann and Julia went to Melbourne Zoo in 1997 and have since both had babies, sired by Jersey-born Motaba. This is just an example of how the family tree of Jersey's gorillas has spread all over the world. A new female "Bahasha" arrived in early May 2001 from Melbourne Zoo. Over the summer she was successfully integrated with the rest of the group and seems to be getting on well the fellow Aussie Ya Kwanza. It is hoped that eventually the pair will start to contribute genetically valuable offspring in the international breeding programme.
Gorilla's are the largest of all primates and are found in several regions of equatorial Africa. The western lowland gorilla has the largest range and is found in Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and the extreme western tip of Zaire. Here the gorillas live in the dense primary and secondary rainforest, lowland swamp forest and montane forest, up to 3,000 metres, where the climate is humid. Gorillas are ground dwellers and are therefore much larger and heavier than their relations, the orangutans, who are more suited to life in the trees. Nevertheless, gorillas are quiet agile and have hands and feet that give good grip, but climbing is still done with great caution. Gorillas are diurnal (active during the day) and much of their time is spent foraging for food. Being mainly vegetarian they enjoy fruit, seeds, foliage, stems and roots from a wide selection of plants but the occasional insect also provides extra protein.
Their large bellies are well adjusted to digesting the vast quantities of tough vegetation, which they consume. It has been suggested that the wild adults eat the equivalents of 50 boxes of "All-Bran" in fibre each day! At dusk they settle down and make nests for the night using branches and foliage, usually on the ground.
Gorillas are social animals and tend to live in large family groups led by a dominant "silverback" male. Group sizes may vary, from 5 to 30 members, and stay in close contact as they move about looking for food. Females reach sexual maturity at the age of 6-8 years and males between 7-10. They have no specific breeding season and a pregnancy lasts between 250 and 290 days. Almost always, just one infant is born and like humans the babies are totally dependent on their mothers for food and protection. At six months they are quite active and able to cling to mum without her having to cradle them. It is also at this stage that the infants start on solid foods and spend more time with the other group members.
Like many of the species at Jersey Zoo there are many factors that still threaten the existence of this endangered species. Although they are legally protected from hunting throughout their range, these regulations are impossible to enforce. Together with lost habitat to farmland, the illegal capture of gorillas for bush meat, the pet trade, hunting trophies and souvenirs (gruesome novelties such as gorilla hand ashtrays) The extinction of all species of gorilla is possible if we do not intervene. In one small area of Cameroon alone, an estimated 800 gorillas are taken each year. For the rest of their range, this figure could be many thousands. Some poachers plunder the forest and many workers at logging companies hunt the gorillas and ship the bush meat to urban countries for sale. Timber trucks to transport the bush meat to the urban centres where it is sold. Very often trucks have been found stacked with gorilla and chimpanzee arms and legs.
These is ongoing work to raise public awareness about the serious threat that the bush meat trade poses on gorillas. On a positive note, a substantial research grant has recently been awarded to the International Trading Centre, for the continuation of research into how this meat trade is affecting gorilla populations in western Africa, and what can be done to reduce its impact.
The worldwide captive population of western lowland gorillas is in the region of 1000 animals kept at some 150 different institutions and thanks to cooperation between organisations, it is genetically healthy and continues to increase steadily. Tragically, however, if the situation in the wild does not improve soon for the gorilla species as a whole, through the protection of their habitat and the acceptance of alternatives to bush meat, the only way that these incredible apes will be able to share the planet with us may be as captives