See the Endangered Gorilla Born at the National Zoo

The baby western lowland gorilla is the zoo’s first since 2018

Gorilla baby
The new baby western lowland gorilla, which was born on May 27. Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

A critically endangered western lowland gorilla was born over the weekend at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute for the first time in five years. The baby, whose sex is still undetermined, is the second offspring of 20-year-old mother Calaya and 31-year-old father Baraka. 

“We are overjoyed to welcome a new infant to our western lowland gorilla troop,” Becky Malinsky, curator of primates, says in a zoo statement. “Calaya is an experienced mother, and I have every confidence she will take excellent care of this baby, as she did with her first offspring, Moke. Since his birth in 2018, it’s been wonderful seeing her nurturing and playful side come out.” 

Calaya and Baraka bred in September 2022 following a recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSP scientists choose which animals will produce offspring based on their genetic makeup, health, temperament and other factors.

Newborn Western Lowland Gorilla at Smithsonian's National Zoo

The zoo describes Calaya’s personality as protective and cautious, while Baraka is relaxed and playful—he has been “very tolerant of his 5-year-old son’s antics,” per the statement. Moke, a rambunctious and charismatic juvenile, spends most of his time playing pranks on the other gorillas, learning new training behaviors and coming up with ways to get keepers’ attention, per the zoo. The zoo staff is “most excited” to see how he interacts with his new sibling, according to the statement. 

Along with Calaya, Baraka and their two offspring, the Smithsonian’s lowland gorilla troop also contains a 41-year-old female named Mandara and her 14-year-old daughter, Kibibi.

In the wild, both male and female gorillas voluntarily leave their natal group when they’re about eight, (though the males are sometimes forced out). Males will band together to form bachelor groups until they are mature enough to lead their own troop—usually made up of one silverback male around 12 years or older, at least one younger male and several adult females with their offspring.

The Gorilla SSP began forming bachelor groups in U.S. zoos in the 1980s to mimic their social structure in the wild. Until a few years ago, the zoo also had a bachelor group made of silverback brothers Kwame and Kojo, who were born to Mandara in 1999 and 2001. Kojo moved to a zoo in New Mexico in 2021, and Kwame was chosen to lead a troop in Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in 2018. 

Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) are native to the rainforests of central and western Africa. They are primarily herbivorous, but they also eat termites and ants. Adult males typically consume some 45 pounds of food per day and can weigh up to 500 pounds and grow to six feet tall. Females are much smaller, usually weighing 150 to 200 pounds and standing 4.5 feet tall. 

Because of poaching and disease, notably Ebola, gorilla populations have declined by more than 60 percent in the past 20 to 25 years. They are now considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The species is also threatened by habitat destruction: Timber is a major export where they live in Central Africa, and tantalum, a metal found in electronics such as cell phones, laptops and cameras, is mined in the animals’ habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Scientists have a difficult time estimating the species’ population, because these apes live in dense rainforests—but only some 100,000 individuals may be left

“Every new birth contributes to the conservation of this species,” Malinsky said in a statement earlier this year. Staff at the zoo have seen Calaya nursing her new infant, which is “clinging closely” to its mom. They are allowing the two to bond without interference, so it might take some time before they can determine the baby’s sex, per the zoo. 

Calaya and her newborn are now on display, though the pair also can access a more private location off-exhibit, and as a result, they may not always be on view. Visitors can still see the zoo’s other four gorillas at the Great Ape House and meet an animal keeper to learn more about the apes every day at 11:30 a.m.

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