At Nearly Four Months Old, the Zoo’s Youngest Gorilla Has Begun to Show His Rambunctious Roots
Moke, the National Zoo’s first infant gorilla in nine years, enlivens the primate house with chatter and play.
So far, one thing is clear: Moke is a talker. As he nears 15 weeks of age, the National Zoo’s infant western lowland gorilla is exerting his independence more and more. Already, Moke has begun to experiment with new foods and toys, and is taking literal steps to integrate into his troop’s social hierarchy.
Moke’s birth to new mother Calaya on April 15, 2018 marked the first arrival of a gorilla infant to the Zoo in nine years. Western lowland gorillas populations across west central Africa have suffered the effects of unmitigated poaching, disease and habitat loss in the last several decades. About ten years ago, the species was listed as critically endangered—a status obtained only by creatures who have lost more than 80 percent of their population within the span of three generations. Conservationists worry that gorillas’ future may be bleak if present rates of climate change and the encroachment of agricultural boundaries on natural habitats persist.
In light of these stakes, the news of Calaya’s pregnancy, announced last fall, was met with joy, excitement and a touch of anxiety. Zoo primate keepers kept close watch over Calaya during her nine months of gestation, performing familiar procedures such as frequent ultrasounds to monitor the status of the growing fetus.
Calaya, who is nearing her 16th birthday, conceived Moke with her mate, 26-year-old Baraka, who was himself born at the National Zoo in April 1992. From the moment Calaya arrived at the Zoo in 2015, Baraka was reportedly “smitten”—a windfall for conservationists who had spent months evaluating the pair’s compatibility through a matchmaking algorithm developed as a part of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan. The math of primate attraction is understandably complex—taking into account far more than what’s available on Tinder—and processes factors like age, sociability, genetics and personality traits. According to the algorithm, Calaya and Baraka are an ideal match. And from day one, it was clear the hard work had paid off: Baraka couldn’t take his eyes off his new lady love—a clear swipe right.
Moke is the couple’s first child. In the weeks leading up to his birth, Zoo personnel trained Mandara, a veteran mother who has successfully raised six of her own infants, as a potential foster in case Calaya was unwilling to care for her child—an occasional concern for first-time moms. Baraka himself, though born to a gorilla named Haloko, was brought up in surrogacy by Mandara. But such has not been the case with Calaya, who soon allayed all fears with her attentiveness to Moke. The two continue to have a healthy, loving relationship.
Moke’s rambunctious personality has already begun to shine through: he is precocious, vocal and endearingly demanding. Curators have been delighted to find that he already responds to his name, and pantomimes early displays of dominance in front of his mother. Occasionally, when Moke wishes to flee Calaya's protective hold, he will grumble and gnaw pointedly on her hands and feet—clear signs of his penchant for “sass,” says primate keeper Melba Brown.
At the end of June, Moke took his first confident, but wobbly steps. Though she still chauffers Moke around on her back, Calaya has been gently emboldening her son to move on his own. Brown finds Calaya’s patient pedagogy enchanting: when Moke steps cautiously towards his mother, she will inch backwards, encouraging him to once again bridge the gap.
In the weeks since, Moke has climbed to new heights—literally. A favorite pastime of his appears to be scaling the walls of the gorilla enclosure, sometimes ascending up to 10 feet under Calaya’s watchful—and occasionally reproachful—eye. “She’s still very protective of him,” says Brown. “Though he seems really advanced for such a little thing. His coordination still needs a bit of work, but in no time he’ll be running around the exhibit and playing with the other gorillas.”
Moke's early forays are imbued with confidence, but he will bear the mark of infancy until he is weaned from his mother: a tuft of white hair on his rump. In gorilla troops, this badge helps mothers identify their offspring and remind other members of the group of the youngster's juvenile status.
With his rowdy streak, Moke takes after his strong-willed, “no-nonsense” mother, says Brown. Though still one of the Zoo’s newest gorillas, Calaya was quick to assert dominance over other females in 2015. Up until the birth, Calaya determinedly maintained distance between herself and 36-year-old Mandara and her nine-year-old daughter, Kibibi. But Moke has brought Calaya, Baraka, Mandara and Kibibi—with the addition of Moke, a five-membered troop—closer together. “He has acted as a bonding glue for the trio of females,” says Brown. Moke has even begun to tentatively approach Mandara and Kibibi, though it remains at Calaya’s discretion when—and how abruptly—these interactions end.
For all of Calaya’s outward gruffness, she has proved to be a tender and devoted mother. “She has a rough side, but also a very soft side,” Brown explains. “And you can see her tremendous affection for Moke, just in her gentle touches, and even in how she looks at him. It’s really sweet to watch the bond between those two.”
Additionally, a relationship has slowly begun to blossom between Moke and his father Baraka. Though male gorillas don’t typically engage directly in childcare, the silverback leader of the group fathers almost all of a troop’s offspring, and will occasionally engage in gentle play. Baraka’s serene patience is the foil to Calaya’s assertive candor—but both parents are exquisitely gentle with Moke. Brown recounts a brief encounter between father and son, wherein Moke ambled over to Baraka, who crouched to brush the infant with his lips. In turn, Moke placed a tiny hand on Baraka’s head. As Moke continues to grow over the coming months, he may become more mischievous around his father, and the two will even engage in playful wrestling.
After Moke’s birth, Calaya returned to the contraceptive regimen that all of the Zoo’s female gorillas currently follow; it will likely be several years before she becomes pregnant again, an interbirth period also typical of wild gorillas. For now, Calaya’s attention is focused entirely on Moke, who will continue to nurse from her until about age four. In the meantime, however, the three-and-a-half-month old has begun to develop his taste for solid foods, occasionally gnawing on leaves of lettuce or handfuls of hay with the nine teeth that have recently erupted from his gums.
Brown and the rest of the Zoo staff have been buoyed by the public’s renewed interest in the gorilla exhibit since Moke’s birth, and she has high hopes that the infant’s antics will help raise awareness of gorillas’ plight abroad. “It’s really very exciting,” Brown says. “Moke is literally serving as a gorilla ambassador.”
Zoo patrons can visit Moke and the rest of his troop, as well as bachelor brothers Kwame and Kojo, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. or follow Moke’s progress on Twitter using the hashtag #GorillaStory. A great ape keeper will be available at the Zoo’s Great Ape House each day at 11:30 a.m. to answer questions.