Calaya, a 15-year-old western lowland gorilla, gave birth to her first son at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington D.C. on April 15. This is the first time in nine years that a male western lowland gorilla has been born at the National Zoo.
After giving birth to her son, Moke, which means “junior” or “little one” in the Lingala language, Calaya immediately began kissing and cradling the infant, just like a human would nurse her own newborn.
Animal care staff at the zoo have been observing the new family—which includes 26-year-old father, Baraka—from a distance so that Calaya and her baby can bond without interference, but they are cautiously optimistic that the newborn gorilla will thrive.
“The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our Zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole,” Meredith Bastian, curator of primates, . “The primate team’s goal was to set Calaya up for success as best we could, given that she is a first-time mother. Doing so required great patience and dedication on the part of my team, and I am very proud of them and Calaya.”
In order to prepare Calaya for motherhood, the zoo staff showed her photos of mother gorillas and also gave her a gorilla stuffed animal for her to kiss and pretend to nurse.
“This infant’s arrival triggers many emotions—joy, excitement, relief—and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off,” Animal keeper Melba Brown said in a statement. “We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together.”
Western lowland gorillas are native to the forests of Gabon, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Angola. They are a critically endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, due to poaching and disease.
The Great Ape House at the National Zoo is currently closed to zoo visitors so that mother and child can bond properly.