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12:11 PM

Audubon Zoo Awaits Arrival of New Silverback Gorilla

Latest addition to western lowland gorilla group expected in December

Okpara, a male Western lowland gorilla, soon will be settled in at Audubon Zoo – the latest move in a months-long process designed to establish a new gorilla group here that will help ensure the survival of the critically endangered species.

Animal care professionals are hopeful that “Okie,’’ as he is affectionately known at his current home at Zoo New England's Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, will be successful in starting his own family at Audubon. Okpara is African for “first-born son.’’

“We are excited to have Okpara here and hope he settles in well with the help of the Zoo New England staff,’’ said Courtney Eparvier, curator of primates at Audubon Zoo. “Okpara will have quite a presence at Audubon Zoo and we look forward to contributing to the Western lowland gorilla population.’’

Okpara, age 24, will join another recent arrival - Tumani, a 10-year-old female Western lowland gorilla from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo – and Praline, a female who is the last gorilla born at Audubon Zoo 21 years ago. Plans call for Tumani, which means “hope’’ in Swahili, Praline and Okpara to soon be joined by another female gorilla.

Last month, the two female gorillas engaged in a structured introduction process to ensure that they would bond socially. That process is now complete and Praline and Tumani are comfortably cohabitating in Audubon’s World of Primates gorilla habitat.

Okpara, who is scheduled to arrive at Audubon Zoo in December, will undergo a similar introductory period before he joins the gorilla group.

Zoo New England and Audubon Zoo are active participants in the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), a cooperative, inter-zoo program coordinated nationally through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Species Survival Plans help to ensure the survival of selected species in zoos and aquariums.

Like all great apes, gorillas are in danger of extinction due to habitat loss from unsustainable agricultural and mining practices. The SSP weighs the genetics and personalities of each animal as well as the needs of and potential mates at other zoos.

“Careful thought and planning goes into these recommendations and this is not something that we enter into lightly,” said John Linehan, Zoo New England President and CEO. “This is bittersweet for us as we will miss Okie, but it is important for him to start his own family which contributes to the preservation of this species.”

Each species has an advisory board of experts who consider the parentage and genetic information of every animal in the system to determine which ones would make the best match at the time given the current gene pool. The panel strives to maintain the genetic variation that a species would get under ideal conditions in the wild.

Very few zoo animals are brought in from the wild and fewer still will return there. Instead, they are bred and live under human care, serving as the ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild – ideally as a healthy, genetically diverse population designed to avert extinction.

The AZA’s Gorilla Species Survival Plan manages 350 gorillas in 48 North American zoos, including a dozen born last year. Many gorilla populations have declined or disappeared over the past few decades. The Western lowland gorilla is critically endangered, with an estimated population of 100,000.

Eparvier said animal care professionals are hopeful that by highlighting the plight of gorillas, guests will be inspired to make simple changes in their lives.

"Merely by recycling electronics, you can reduce the demand for coltan, a mineral mined habitats of gorillas and other crticially endangered species.'' she  said. "Small steps can make a big difference.''

As part of the comings and goings at Audubon Zoo, Bandia, a female gorilla, left for Louisville Zoo in October. Binti, another female, departed for Houston Zoo in spring of 2015.

Casey, the lone male in the former gorilla troop who did not produce offspring despite being paired with four females during his 15 years at Audubon Zoo, departed for Louisville Zoo in June.

Audubon staff plans to have the new troop – Praline, Tumani, Okpara and possibly another new female gorilla - in place by early 2018. The structure of multiple females and a single adult male mirrors gorilla social groups in the wild.

Audubon Nature Institute

Audubon Nature Institute operates a family of museums, parks and research facilities dedicated to celebrating the wonders of nature. Through innovative live animal exhibits, education programs, and scientific discovery, Audubon makes a meaningful contribution to preserving wildlife for the future. Audubon Nature Institute flagships include Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Entergy Giant Screen Theater, Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Woldenberg Riverfront Park and Audubon Wilderness Park. Ron Forman is President and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute.