Gorillas for Christchurch wildlife park

06:40, Nov 18 2010
SET FOR RETIREMENT: Western Lowland silverback gorilla Kibabu at Taronga Zoo.
SET FOR RETIREMENT: Western Lowland silverback gorilla Kibabu at Taronga Zoo.

New Zealand will soon have its first gorillas when the head of Sydney's Taronga Zoo gorilla pack, a 210-kg father of 14, will move to Christchurch in a few years to enjoy his retirement.

The 33-year-old silverback Kibabu and two of his "blackback" sons, Fuzu, three, and Fataki, seven, will arrive in 2013 to form a "bachelor group" in a specialist habitat at the Orana Wildlife Park.

Western lowland gorillas are classified as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List due to commercial hunting, the ebola virus and habitat loss. They are the most common gorilla seen in zoos.

Orana, which is building a habitat for the primates, will join the international zoo-based breeding programme and help raise awareness on the mammals' plight.

The park's chief executive Lynn Anderson said the project would be the first for New Zealand as gorillas have not been in the country before.

"The development will not only benefit the park, it will be a boost for the Canterbury region."

The park plans to have a large indoor playroom and a big outdoor grassed area. Visitors would be able to view the gorillas across water moats and through glass barriers.

Orana, a non-profit organisation, has started fundraising for the $2 million project with $150,000 already in the bank from the Eureka Trust.

Taronga Zoo primate manager Louise Grossfeldt said if Kibabu were to remain in the group at Taronga, his reduced agility and increased reluctance to engage in family politics would see him challenged by his sons or driven away by the females.

The younger gorillas were also reaching the age-bracket when they need to leave the group.

"If they're a boy then they need to go and hang out with other boys for a while and do the bachelor boy thing."

Kibabu's presence will be crucial for keeping the younger boys in check and educating them about their future roles.

"Kibabu is actually a very good gorilla to learn from," says Ms Grossfeldt.

"With him being the leader of the bachelor group, he will actually be a very good role model for Fataki and Fuzu to continue to learn from."

Since Kibabu arrived at Taronga in late 1996 from Holland, the close-to-perfect 210kg male has fathered 14 offspring.

Now, to maintain genetic diversity in the Australasian region, Taronga must seek out a new, unrelated male to take over breeding, Ms Grossfeldt said.

Keepers from Taronga will assist in settling Kibabu, Fuzu and Fataki into their new home in Christchurch, but are definitely sad to see him go.

"There is a part of me that will miss him immensely," said Ms Grossfeldt, who added that he was a "magnificent" gorilla.

"It's a legacy to Kibabu and the group that he's built that we continue to move the group forward and help support the conservation of this species. This is the way to do that."