Bristol's Gorilla Island

Jacqueline Wadsworth meets a characterful family of western lowland gorillas who have provided the inspiration for an art project called Wow! Gorillas, to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Bristol Zoo.

This summer, Bristol’s streets will be dotted with life-sized gorilla sculptures to celebrate Bristol Zoo’s 175th anniversary. Decorated by artists, they will be on show from 4 July for 10 weeks in a project called Wow! Gorillas, which will also raise funds for gorilla conservation in Africa and Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal in Bristol.

Inspiration for these colourful characters comes from the zoo’s own western lowland gorillas, a group of six who live together in the heart of Bristol on Gorilla Island. They provide a fascinating insight into the sophisticated way gorillas live together, with hierarchy and discipline at the heart of family life, followed by food, fun and relaxation.

First, some introductions. Head of the group is Jock, a 34-stone silverback. He has two ‘wives’, Romina and Salome, both of whom have borne him children, a six-year-old daughter, Namoki, and a son Komale, four.

The final member of the group is a young female, Kera, who was born in Barcelona and had a difficult start in life. She was one of twins, which are highly unusual for gorillas, but her mother couldn’t cope so she was reared in an ape nursery in Germany, and joined Jock’s family in 2008.

Jock’s relaxed nature may have helped Kera be accepted into the family group, which was by no means a certainty when she arrived from Germany. Having been reared by humans she hadn’t learnt gorilla etiquette and sometimes behaved differently to the rest of the gorilla family – and she wasn’t his offspring.

In the wild, silverbacks are known to kill youngsters who don’t belong to them, and such aggression has also been witnessed in captivity. In May this year a silverback at London Zoo became aggressive when a female with a baby, which wasn’t his, was introduced to his group. The infant later died.

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Bristol’s dedicated keepers introduced their new juvenile gorilla very carefully, and gradually, to the family group. “It took us about a year before Kera was with the rest 24/7,” explained Rob Rouse, the zoo’s overseer of mammals. “Before that, keepers sat with her during introductions to the rest of the gorilla group, before gradually moving away.”

The silverback’s role is to protect his family, make sure there’s enough food, and sort out arguments. “If there is an argument, Jock will discipline the individual where necessary, keeping the whole group in check,” said Rob, who chooses his words precisely – “‘punishment’ is not the right word.”

For example, Jock has various methods of discipline which he may use if someone tries to pinch his food. “I’ve seen him mock charge Romina but not hit her, or he may run past and clap her on the back,” said Rob. “It’s very unusual for him to have to do anything more than that but I have seen him actually sitting on her, saying look, I’m not going to hurt you because you’re in my family, and I like you, but I could if I wanted to!”

Discipline is based on the island’s pecking order, as decreed by Jock. He, of course, is top gorilla. Romina is the dominant female with Salome behind her. Then come his youngsters in order of age, and last is the most recent arrival, Kera. “She is at the bottom of the group’s social hierarchy,” said Rob. “She has to be careful where she sits and how she approaches the other gorillas during feeding times. It sounds unfair but it’s the natural structure of a gorilla group. I’m sure that as she becomes sexually mature Jock will start to appreciate her more.”

It’s a different matter, however, when Kera, who is seven in August, plays with her peers. “With the youngsters she’s top dog because she’s oldest,” said Rob. “All three play well together, in pairs or as a trio. Namoki can be quite rough but if Kera wants to discipline her she must be careful because if Jock spots her she may get disciplined herself.”

Kera also gets on well with the two adult females – a good move. “The ladies are less likely to react if you can get in with them,” said Rob. “They also back each other up during disputes.”

Young Namoki has grown up as the apple of her father’s eye, but as she’s got older she’s become a bit of a ‘madam’ – just like her mother. “Namoki is a little monster for want of a better word!” laughed Rob. “She’s full of beans and character – everyone likes her, but if ever there’s trouble she’s either in the middle of it or sitting a little way off pretending it’s got nothing to do with her.”

Jock has always loved playing with Namoki and he’s now a great playmate for his young son too, with tag a favourite game. It often ends with the youngster being enveloped in his father’s great arms and tickled without mercy. That’s the sort of guy Jock is – a gentle giant.

When he’s not eating (food is one of the gorillas’ main interests) or involved in family business, Jock likes nothing better than to chill out. Between meals of fruit and veg he can often be seen indoors, atop his nest-shaped perch, having a doze, bottom lip drooping to reveal a soft pink gum.

‘Wife’ Romina is a great people-watcher, which Rob suggests is because her sight was restored in 2002 with pioneering surgery to remove cataracts. “After the operation she was fascinated by new people. She picked out children in bright clothes and watched insects on the floor that she’d never been able to see before.”

Salome too has benefited from medical science, giving birth to Komale in 2006 after fertility treatment. She is a very caring and protective mother and also highly intelligent, says Rob. He illustrates this with the following example. When the gorillas are given coconuts as a treat, Salome is good at opening the ones no one else can crack. But rather than provoke an argument by stealing the uncracked ones, she waits until the others have lost interest then she takes them off to a hiding place where she cracks them all for herself.

Does some of this sound rather familiar? Perhaps what goes on at Gorilla Island isn’t so different to life in most ordinary family homes.

To find out more about Bristol Zoo’s Wow! Gorillas project visit www.bristolzoo.org.uk/wow-gorillas

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