VIDEO: Endangered gorilla expecting first baby at New Orleans zoo

Published 7:02 am Tuesday, July 7, 2020

One of the critically endangered gorillas in the New Orleans’ zoo is expecting her first baby, and already is being trained with a “doll” to hold her future offspring.

Thirteen-year-old Tumani’s training “doll” doesn’t look anything like a gorilla because a stuffed toy could easily be torn apart, the Audubon Zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Robert McLean, said Monday. Instead, a rugged section of canvas firehose tubing has been woven roughly to the proportions and weight of a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) newborn gorilla.

“I haven’t seen it myself, McLean said. ”Apparently it’s pretty ugly but it does the job.”

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Tumani, father Okpara, and females Alafia and Praline are western lowland gorillas. Although there were an estimated 362,000 in the wild in 2016, their numbers were falling about 2.7% a year, making them critically endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. At that rate, their numbers could plummet more than 80% by 2082. Habitat loss, disease — including the Ebola virus — and illegal hunting for meat are among reasons their population is falling so fast.

About 350 of the gorillas are in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The last gorilla born at the Audubon Zoo was Praline, now 24.

Tumani’s pregnancy “is a huge deal and we want to share that news with the public. It seems to be going well,” McLean said.

The due date is anywhere between mid-July and Aug. 20, based on her mating with Okpara, a 26-year-old silverback who came to New Orleans in 2017 from the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Veterinarians don’t know the baby’s sex.

The 160-pound (72-kilogram) expectant mother is receiving twice monthly ultrasounds and has undergone training on how to pick up the doll, including how to hold it to her chest where a baby gorilla could nurse.

“We don’t want the baby by itself. We want it with the mother at all times,” McLean explained. “If the baby’s on the ground, we want to be able to say, ‘Hey, pick it up.”

She also has been taught not to play with a baby bottle and its foot-long (30-centimeter) flexible hose leading to the nipple, which could be used if Tumani has a problem lactating or nursing.

Alafia, who has successfully raised a baby, also has been trained to do all the same things just in case she has to step in as the infant’s foster mother.

McLean said both Alafia’s experience at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and the fact that Tumani saw younger brothers and sisters raised at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she lived until 2017, are in favor of successful motherhood.

“But we still don’t know how they’ll respond,” he said.