London Zoo denies accusations of incompetence over the death of baby gorilla

Posted on May 14, 2011

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Tiny, a western lowland gorilla who died on Friday at London Zoo

When he was born Tiny became the first gorilla in 22 years to be born at London Zoo in Regent’s Park. But his arrival and the fanfare last year was not without some concern. His biological father had died in March and a new silverback (Kesho) had been brought in to lead the group of females.

In the wild, when a new male takes over an existing gorilla harem, there’s a danger he will kill any young fathered by another male – it’s how they ensure their genes survive. It’s the sexual selection hypothesis, that a male may commit infanticide.

So when the Zoological Society of London which runs London Zoo began to gradually introduce the 7-month old to the adult silverback, it not only raised some eyebrows but also caused many to look away and cross their fingers. Their first meeting went well, but their second encounter on Thursday was their last.

Tiny broke his arm during a scuffle between the group instigated by Kesho.  He underwent a three-hour operation to pin his arm but vets were unable to revive him. It’s thought Tiny died from internal bleeding. A post-mortem is being carried out.

Following Tiny’s death on Friday, ZSL director David Field said: “Everyone here is utterly devastated. Although we had tried to be prepared for the worst, we are all completely heartbroken by this.”

But one leading expert in the field of evolutionary anthropology, Professor Volker Sommer, who’s also an advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on great apes has criticised the actions of ZSL calling those responsible “incompetent”.

In a letter sent to ZSL he said he was bewildered that London Zoo went ahead with the introduction and added that the zoo should on longer keep apes if it is not up to scratch with what science tells us.

He added: “What on Earth did ZSL expect to happen? Any undergraduate student of zoology could have told you what to expect!

“How can it be that ZSL, an organisation known for being guided by scientific knowledge, ignores findings that have been accumulated over the last 40 years?”

Officials at ZSL told me they felt Professor Sommer had missed the point and that they always knew the risks involved.

Keepers waited months to introduce Tiny and his mother Mjukuu to the new male

In a statement a spokesman for ZSL denied the allegations of incompetence and said: “We were very open from the beginning about the fact that bringing a new male into a situation where a female was pregnant by another male was very challenging.

“We were advised by the European Endangered Species Programme  (EEP) at the time to find a new male for the long-term welfare of the group as a whole. It would be un-natural to keep female gorillas without a male leader and would not have met their complex social needs satisfactorily.

“We did all that we possibly could to mitigate the known risks but fundamentally we cannot stop wild animals exhibiting their natural behaviours, and neither should we.”

Keepers returned Tiny’s body to Mjukuu, his mother, over the weekend so she could come to terms with his death. How great apes grieve is a subject of much debate among scientists, but science aside, like most parents I doubt she’ll ever get over losing her first offspring.

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