Gorillas have been a popular part of the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s animals. A 1936 issue of our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, stated, “More people ask for the gorillas than for any single exhibit, even more than inquire about the penguins.” We don’t have penguins here anymore, but we still have gorillas!
Gorillas at the Zoo
The Zoo’s first gorillas arrived here as youngsters in 1931, captured in the mountains of what was then the Belgian Congo in Africa in 1930 by famed explorers Martin and Osa Johnson and paid for by a generous donation from early Zoo benefactors Ellen B. Scripps and her nephew, Robert P. Scripps. The young gorillas were about five or six years old and it was hoped that one was male and the other female. As it turned out, they were both male, but no matter! The awesome apes enchanted Zoo visitors, and the two served as wonderful ambassadors for their species.
Another famous gorilla resident at the Zoo was Albert. Born in Africa, Albert arrived at the Zoo in August 1949 at about four months of age. He and two baby female lowland gorillas were hand raised at the Zoo hospital. In 1965, he fathered Alvila, the first lowland gorilla conceived and born at the San Diego Zoo, and only the seventh gorilla born in managed care. During his years here, Albert endeared himself to an international audience through his majestic stature, mischievous behavior, and gentle demeanor. His spirit continues through his great-grandchildren living at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the ambiance of his namesake restaurant, Albert’s, a full-service restaurant located on the spot of our former open-air gorilla grotto, where Albert lived.
Today, the Zoo has a wonderful, naturalistic gorilla habitat that is home to seven gorillas, divided into smaller groups, that alternate days on and off exhibit: while one troop is outside being admired by Zoo visitors, the others spends the “off” day indoors in the spacious gorilla “bedrooms.” Memba is the only wild-born gorilla at the Zoo. He arrived at the Zoo in 1984 when he was about 15 years old. In the wild, silverbacks are lucky to live 30 years, but Memba is currently 44 years old and doing well! Father of seven, he spends time with sons Ekuba and Mandazzi.
Paul Donn, who was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 1989, heads the Zoo’s other troop. He has fathered three offspring. Members of Paul Donn’s troop are females Ndjia and Jessica.
Maka is an adult male at the Zoo who gets the exhibit all to himself when it’s his turn. Born here in 1995, Maka has a genetic defect that has made him smaller than other male gorillas his age. Living alone or with other males does occur in nature, so it is not out of the ordinary for him to be living as a lone male, and he does have protected contact with the other males in the off-exhibit gorilla bedroom.
Gorillas at the Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park opened to the public in 1972 with gorilla silverback Trib and his mate, Dolly. They produced the first gorilla born at the Park when little Jim arrived in 1973. Dolly lost interest in caring for her infant, so he was transferred to the Animal Care Center to be hand raised. Over the years, the Park’s troop has grown and is now led by silverback Winston, who watches over females Vila, Kamilah, Kokamo, , and Kokamo’s youngster, Monroe, born on June 17, 2011. Monroe is the 16th gorilla born at the Park. New additions to Winston’s troop are Imani and Frank, who moved to the Park from the Zoo in January 2013.
Frank has a special story: born at the Zoo in September 2008, his mother, Azizi, a hand-raised, first-time mom, was not able to hold Frank correctly to nurse him, so keepers had to intervene. Rather than removing Frank from his troop to raise him in the nursery, the committed keepers devised a “rear assisting” program that allowed Azizi (and his aunt, Imani) to raise Frank while keepers helped out by feeding him and quickly returning him to his family. This strategy was wildly successful, as Frank is now a rotund, confident young gorilla, adored by his family and fans. He will have a great time playing with Monroe!
Vila is our oldest gorilla. She turned 55 in October 2012! Born in Africa in 1957 and hand raised at the San Diego Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, she gave birth in 1965 to the first gorilla born at the Zoo: Alvila. Vila was moved to the Safari Park in 1975 and quickly endeared herself to visitors and staff. Today, Vila is one of the three oldest known gorillas living today. Although she is “up there” in age, Vila is in excellent health, has a good appetite, and normal behavior. She does have some age-related issues, so she receives senior vitamins and medicine for arthritis, which works well: she has no trouble getting around. Living in Southern California helps as well, as the temperate climate is very easy on an aging gorilla, and even though she is missing a few teeth, corn on the cob is one of her favorite foods and she never misses a kernel!
Gorillas have no natural enemies or predators, yet these peaceful creatures are at critical risk because of humans. People hunt gorillas for food called bushmeat, and logging and mining companies destroy gorilla habitat. The recent armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has caused refugees to pour into previous gorilla habitat. Disease epidemics such as the Ebola virus have recently decimated gorilla populations that were previously considered secure within their natural habitat.
The past 15 years have seen a dramatic decline in gorilla population size, with almost half of the entire eastern gorilla population suspected to be wiped out. Illegal hunting has become a lucrative activity in the region. While hunters often lay snares targeting other mammals, sadly, many gorillas die or lose limbs after being accidentally ensnared. An illegal pet trade is also on the rise. Behind each infant gorilla caught by poachers, several family members are often killed.
Field program in Cameroon
In 2000, San Diego Zoo Global established a long-term field program in Cameroon, which is now part of our Central Africa Program, focusing on the behavior and habitat use of gorillas and other primate species in the mountainous southwestern Cameroon rain forest. It isn’t clear whether gorillas in the area’s Ebo Forest are western lowland gorillas Gorilla gorilla gorilla or Cross River gorillas Gorilla gorilla diehli—or something else. In 2005, we received permission to establish permanent study sites inside the Ebo Forest, where surveys gathering ecological and behavioral data for various species, including gorillas, are collected daily. More recently, the Central Africa Program has established Clubs des Amis des Gorilles (Gorilla Guardian Clubs) in the villages closest to the gorillas to promote community-led conservation initiatives and to promote pride in the unique Ebo gorillas.
The critical conservation status of gorillas underscores the urgency for gorilla conservation science. In collaboration with wildlife managers and conservation scientists in countries where gorilla populations survive, San Diego Zoo Global is involved in the training of range-country scientists in the application of genetic tools and field methods in assessing and monitoring surviving gorilla populations. Performing the first genetic studies on populations of wild mountain gorillas, it was discovered that regionally, these animals are genetically distinct.
Genetic differences were also found within western lowland gorilla populations, which had been considered a single subspecies. By gathering and analyzing fecal samples from wild gorillas, researchers from San Diego Zoo Global and wildlife authorities and conservationists in Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon can shed light on the genetic variation across regions.
You can help, too!
Africa may seem far away, but there are some things you can do to help! When you buy wood or furniture, ask if the wood has been certified. This means the wood was taken in a way approved by forestry experts. Buying certified wood encourages logging companies in Africa to follow wildlife laws that help protect gorillas and other African animals.
Recycle those cell phones
Did you know that cell phones have a connection to the well-being of gorillas and other animals in central Africa? Here's the 4-1-1: cell phones contain a rare ore called coltan (short for columbite-tantalite). This metal is found in central Africa, and increased mining operations to get the coltan means habitat loss and increased hunting pressure on gorillas and other wildlife. Surprisingly, wildlife reserves suffer most from mining. With the increased popularity of cell phones, thousands of illegal miners have invaded the protected parks. Needing food, they have hunted gorillas and elephants to near extinction in these areas.
San Diego Zoo Global, along with Eco-Cell, a cellular phone recycling company, has a cell phone-recycling program at both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to encourage visitors to recycle. Our cell phone recycling program helps to keep those obsolete cell phones, chargers, and old batteries out of landfills and to reduce a little of the coltan demand at the same time. We have cell phone collection boxes at our two facilities, so it's really easy to simply drop off those old phones and accessories, working or not. There is no recycling fee to drop off your phone. All cell phones and accessories collected are reused or properly recycled. Every little bit helps!
You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.