Sedgwick County Zoo embarks on new role as gorilla matchmaker

10/06/2012 2:51 PM

10/07/2012 7:03 PM

He doesn’t know it yet, but at age 18, girl gorillas are about to enter Matt’s life.

An older woman, Kivu, age 33 from Philadelphia, is scheduled to be his new roommate beginning next spring. And, Barika, an 11-year-old female from Calgary, is expected to join the new couple, possibly as soon as late summer.

The hope is harmony, love and eventually … baby gorillas.

Sedgwick County Zoo officials confirmed Friday that female gorillas will finally be added to the zoo’s Downing Gorilla Forest.

Until now, the 8-year-old gorilla exhibit housed only males; nine males, in fact, in three different groups. But the $5.5 million exhibit was also designed with the hope of one day adding females and having baby gorillas.

“The Sedgwick County Zoo’s exhibit was built with the idea that we could hold lots of groups of males,” said Ryan Gulker, deputy director of the zoo. “The exhibit was designed with a lot of flexibility.”

The national coordinator of the Species Survival Plan recommended on Friday that the zoo be entrusted with breeding gorillas.

“I was surprised we received this recommendation this quickly,” Gulker said. “Usually, it takes a little bit longer.”

The gorilla bachelor pad

For now, Sedgwick County’s bachelor gorilla hangout will remain unchanged. But come spring, three of Wichita’s male gorillas — Samson, Jabir and Virgil, all age 13 — will be sent to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Minn., to join two gorillas already there. It’s also getting gorillas from other zoos.

“We are building this $11 million new gorilla exhibit that will be completed by June of 2013,” said Matt Reinartz, marketing and public relations manager at Como Park.

“We are just ecstatic, super excited. Now in the zoo world, things are changing all the time — no pun intended, but it is a wild business. The plan is to bring the three gorillas from Wichita and that will bring our number of gorillas to seven.”

The Sedgwick County Zoo is one of seven accredited zoos in Kansas participating in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan for a variety of species.

Before an animal can be born, plans have to be made for offspring. Zoos do not breed animals just to have baby animals on hand. They are required to keep detailed records on breeding and management plans, looking at each animal’s genetics and its suitability for reproduction.

“As an AZA accredited institution, we manage a lot of our animals through the cooperative breeding program,” Gulker said. “We work together to create and manage the population for genetic health and demographic health. We keep the population at numbers that are healthy.”

Currently, there are about 350 gorillas in exhibit at 52 zoos across the nation, Gulker said.

To keep the population steady, the survival plan calls for 10 to 14 babies to be born each year.

In the wild, gorillas live in tropical rain forests. The western lowland gorilla is found in the tropical forest of western Africa, from southern Nigeria to the Congo River.

The Sedgwick County Zoo’s gorilla exhibit tries to mimic the wild as much as possible. Visitors walk across a 50-foot swinging suspension bridge and step along a concrete path imprinted with foot and knuckle tracks of gorillas.

Wisps of fog shrouded the gorilla’s building where, inside the gorillas share an indoor day room and outside there is a 30,000-square-foot habitat, complete with climbing trees and a waterfall for frolicking.

An adult male lowland gorilla can weigh 330 pounds; the female, 220. A gorilla can be up to 6 feet tall when standing.

In 2007, Western gorillas, the only species seen in zoos, were declared critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. Less than a decade ago, it was estimated there were 100,000 Western gorillas in Africa. Now, those numbers are closer to 30,000. Many of the gorillas have been killed by humans for bush meat or by disease.

Sedgwick County’s gorilla exhibit was inspired by Wichitans Barry and Paula Downing who, upon returning from a 1997 trip to Africa, decided to bring part of their experience to others. They donated $4 million to the project and persuaded others to give $1.5 million more. It took four years to plan and build the exhibit.

In the wild, gorillas live in groups of three or four females to one male, Gulker said.

Because the gorillas are nearly extinct in the wild, zoos stopped taking gorillas out of the wild in the 1960s. Over the next few decades, many zoos relied on larger zoos such as San Diego and Cincinnati to successfully raise gorillas, with smaller zoos housing the male populations.

Now some of the smaller zoos are being allowed to breed gorillas. Regionally, zoos in Omaha, Oklahoma City and Kansas City have breeding groups.

“When you have births in zoos, you get 50 percent males and 50 percent females,” Gulker said. “You have to manage the males in a fashion that represents or reflects what happens in the wild. And, in the wild, when males get to be a certain age, the silverback (the dominant male) says you need to leave the group, because the younger males tend to be rambunctious and cause problems.”

In the wild, the younger males will form bachelor groups. Zoos mimic that by housing bachelor groups.

When male gorillas reach their 20s, the ideal age for fatherhood, they are moved to other zoos.

Introducing girl-illas

The next step for the Sedgwick County Zoo is for officials to apply for an endangered species permit to bring Barika from Canada into the United States. Once that application is submitted, the process can take anywhere from six months to a year to be approved. Once approved, Barika will be brought into the United States and placed in quarantine for 90 days before she is brought to Wichita.

Kivu, the female gorilla in Philadelphia, can move to Wichita as early as next spring, when Samson, Jabir and Virgil are sent to St. Paul.

In the meantime, there is no online dating. No sneak peeks of girl gorillas.

“The dating process is very complicated and loaded with mathematics,” Gulker said. “We are optimistic and hopeful that in April or May we can bring the female from Philadelphia and start the process of getting her introduced to Matt.”

Kivu will be placed in a room with a mesh barrier or window separating her from Matt.

“Once she gets here, we are going to take and put her straight into the building,” Gulker said. “She will be given visual and auditory access to Matt. They will get to know each other through the mesh barrier.”

At age 18, Matt is considered a well-adjusted gorilla.

Kivu, at age 33, has already given birth to four babies; two have survived.

When Barika arrives, she will be introduced to Matt and Kivu much the same way.

The gestation period for gorillas is 8 ½ months.

“Gorillas are one of those animals that like elephants are — in zoospeak — are charismatic mega vertebrates meaning they are big, sexy mammals,” Gulper said. “Everybody loves gorillas. This is a feather in the cap for Sedgwick County. Being able to have a breeding group of gorillas is something to be proud of.”

The zoo hopes to hear the pitter-patter of baby gorilla feet by 2014.

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