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An Ape's Life

International matchmaking and gynecological leaps help captive primates be fruitful and multiply

By Luba Vikhanski

December 10, 2004

Reprinted from the Jerusalem Post, with permission

ONE EARLY MORNING in September, the staff at the Ramat Gan Safari were amazed to discover that Rona, a young orangutan, was holding a newborn baby. Since the shaggy, orange-furred Rona is severely overweight, no one had suspected that she was pregnant and the tiny reddish-brown bundle she was clutching in her arms had arrived as a total surprise.

The birth of a great ape baby is usually an exciting event at a zoo, but this one elicited both joy and sorrow. There had been no orangutan births in the safari since 2000, and because it was unlikely that all four of the zoo's adult females were sterile, the blame had naturally fallen on Moshon, the group's only male. But nobody liked the idea of replacing the 36-year-old safari superstar, famed for his intelligence, with another male.

The good news about the new baby's arrival was that the charismatic orangutan was now vindicated.

"I will have to go and apologize to Moshon personally," says safari curator Dr. Amelia Terkel.

The sad part, however, was that the baby showed no signs of life; it may have been stillborn or it may have died shortly after being born in the middle of the night. Rona refused to be separated from her lifeless offspring and carried it around for 48 hours before it was taken from her to the clinic.

The Ramat Gan orangutans' fertility problems are more than a local concern. These great apes may become extinct in the wild within 20 years, as their rain forest habitat on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is rapidly disappearing. To ensure that they and other endangered animals successfully breed in captivity, wildlife conservation organizations engage in international matchmaking and global strategic planning. The Ramat Gan Safari belongs to the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), which has nearly 300 endangered species programs, including those for orangutans and other great apes - chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos - whose African habitats are also being destroyed at a worrisome rate.

EAZA's orangutan program keeps kinship lists of orangutans at 65 institutions, conducts genetic analyses and makes management recommendations. It makes sure, for example, that "widowed" animals receive new mates. If an ape colony has no new offspring, relationship problems come under scrutiny. Do the females dislike their male? Or could it be that the male shows no interest in them? In cases like that, partner swapping between zoos sometimes solves the problem.

At the EAZA annual conference this fall in Sweden, the orangutan committee appealed to all zoos that hold non- breeding female orangutans, including the Ramat Gan Safari, to look into the situation. The appeal was prompted by the alarming conclusion of a Cologne zoo working group, according to which the orangutan population in European zoos may soon start shrinking.


ORANGUTANS BREED slowly, as each female has offspring only once every five to seven years, and the baby stays with its mother for up to eight years.

"At the moment we have a stable population, but this is not enough," says Dr. Clemens Becker of the Karlsruhe Zoo in Germany, head of EAZA's orangutan program. "If we don't act in the next few years, we'll see a decline."

At the Ramat Gan Safari, attention now focuses on two childless female orangutans, Sissi, 22, and Tussi, 18. They were brought over from the Munich Zoo a few years ago in the hope that they would make Moshon a father. Now that Moshon has proved to be fertile, the caregivers are using human over-the-counter pregnancy kits to check whether the two German females might be pregnant; they apply the sticks to the apes' urine collected from the floor with a syringe. If a pregnancy does not occur soon, Sissi and Tussi might undergo a full fertility work-up by a human gynecologist: their reproductive organs are strikingly similar to those of human females.

Should the need arise to transfer some of the orangutans to another zoo, Moshon is unlikely to be moved, partly because of his celebrity status at the safari. The flaming-orange ape, with deep- set mocking eyes, enormous arms and a Charlie Chaplin walk, has over the years won the hearts of thousands of visitors and given rise to numerous entertaining stories.

It is thanks to Moshon that the safari staff believes the orangutans are the smartest apes of all. While a large part of the safari is an open area where rhinos, ostriches, deer and other animals roam free, the orangutans and other primates live in the zoological garden in the middle of the park, which holds animals from the old Tel Aviv zoo that closed in 1981. Each great ape colony occupies a grassy, 400-square-meter semicircular enclosure, which has sleeping chambers in the back and is separated from the public by a moat and a fence.

The gorilla and chimpanzee enclosures are surrounded by an electric fence, but not the orangutan residence: Shortly after moving in, Moshon began systematically destroying the fence by banging on it with a stick, until zoo keepers gave in and removed the wires. He and the females also figured out how to use small twigs to open the lock separating their sleeping chambers. And one day Moshon dismantled a tap from a sewage pipe, smuggled it into the sleeping quarters under his long fur and used it during the night to wreck every single tile in the chamber floor.

Orangutans, however, are more phlegmatic than the other apes and it's harder to get them to work, and that's why chimpanzees are more often used in sign language and other cognitive studies, explains Dr. Terkel.

"The chimps are like hyper people, they are closer to us - I was going to say, more Israeli - in their high- energy levels," she says.


BREEDING ISSUES among the safari's 12 chimpanzees are altogether different from those of the orangutans. The chimps had been reproducing so successfully that the zoo had to resort to family planning to avoid inbreeding and prevent a population explosion.

Aviv, the colony's 11-year-old reigning male, currently has access to a harem of 10 females and each night brings a female of his choice, usually one in heat, into his sleeping chamber. However, all pregnancies have been put on hold. First, a human gynecologist outfitted the females with human IUDs, the smallest ones on the market. When some of the chimpanzees managed to remove the devices from their bodies, they were implanted with contraceptive patches. But the patches didn't work, and eventually Aviv underwent a vasectomy.

Unlike the solitary orangutans, the chimpanzees, which genetically are closest to humans, tend to form elaborate social relationships and cliques. Currently, the safari has two "coalitions" centered around the colony's two matriarchs: Lili, at 44 the group's veteran, and the 33- year-old Augusta, Aviv's mother (offspring receive names that start with the same letter as their mother's name). Coalition members share the same sleeping chamber, engage in mutual grooming and stand up for one another in the noisy skirmishes that occasionally break out in the chimp enclosure - for example, over a choice piece of fruit.

The safari chimpanzee population was not always so buoyant. When the chimps were moved here from the Tel Aviv Zoo more than 20 years ago, they failed to reproduce despite the improved conditions. The male wasn't good at doing what's supposed to come naturally, apparently because he had grown up in a circus and never seen other chimps mate.

A more experienced male was brought in and soon a number of females became pregnant, but the new mothers neglected their babies or didn't know how to take care of them, again because they lacked maternal role models. Two of the babies, Choco and Leben, won nationwide publicity after being hand-reared by one of the zoo keepers in her Bat Yam apartment. They could not be returned to the group for fear that the dominant male might harm them, and at age five were sent off to a chimp sanctuary in Zambia. Now aged 20, they are reported to be doing well and are both grandfathers.

The colony began to expand only in the late 1980s, when Augusta arrived from a Dutch zoo and showed the local females what it takes to be a good mother. It was from Augusta that the old-timer Lili, Leben's mother, learned to take proper care of her subsequent offspring. In contrast, Choco's mother Shoshi, now 39, failed so abysmally as a mother that she was not allowed to reproduce again.

Today, with no family members around, she prefers to keep to herself and often sits alone in the pose of Rodin's “Thinker,” with her chin resting on her arm. In the evening, however, if not invited by Aviv to his sleeping chamber, she has no choice but to curry favor with one of the familial coalitions in order to join them for the night.

The colony is now at an optimal size, after being trimmed in 2001 when an entire chimp family was sent off to a zoo in Thailand. As is common between zoos, it was a barter deal, in which Ramat Gan got two magnificent hornbills in exchange. The chimps traveled in the cargo compartment of an airplane, as do other wild animals, including elephants. (The only exception are giraffes, which do not fit into a plane and have to be shipped by boat or, when possible, by truck.)


LOOMING FATHER-SON conflicts top the agenda in the third colony of great apes at the safari, the gorillas. At the moment, the situation is still rather idyllic: the gorillas are one happy family, consisting of a 24-year-old male called Lucas, two adult females and their five offspring. Unlike the female bashers the safari had known in the past, the 200-kilogram Lucas, who learned his good manners from his father while growing up in a Dutch zoo, acts like a real gentleman with the female gorillas, which are half his size. He is also an exceptionally caring father, who spends hours playing with his young children. However, the group will soon face a typical zoo problem, which to many human females might not seem like a problem at all - a surplus of eligible males.

The birth ratio of male to female gorillas is 50-50, yet both in nature and in zoos, a group of apes usually has one dominant male and several females. In the wild, the surplus male gorillas wander off alone or form all-male cliques, but what does one do with all the extra males in captivity?

The solution is offered by bachelor colonies, special sanctuaries that keep only male animals. Without the exciting odors of coquettish females pushing smelly behinds under their noses, the males don't seem to miss female company. To avoid future confrontations with their father, two of Lucas's sons will soon be sent off to a bachelor colony in Spain.


APART FROM creating conditions for reproduction and harmonious social life, a major challenge for a zoo is to keep the great apes busy. In the wild, the apes spend much of their waking time foraging for food through vast expanses of forest; when confined to a small enclosure with nothing to do, these intelligent animals, which live till about 50 in captivity, are likely to suffer.

In an effort to mimic nature, the safari staff scatters seeds and fruits throughout the enclosure so that the apes can search the ground for treats. It is also in scattered form that the apes get two of their major meals, the chopped-up fruit and vegetables from the ma'aser - the 10 percent of locally grown produce given to charity in accordance with Halacha - donated daily by Tel Aviv's wholesale produce market.

All three great ape enclosures contain vertical, horizontal and diagonal wooden beams, as well as hammocks and suspended tires, offering ample opportunities for swinging and climbing. The safari staff is also continuously on the lookout for stimulating tasks, providing the apes with twigs, cardboard boxes, burlap bags, old clothes and boomer balls. While breeding programs may one day help return the great apes to the wild (see sidebar), in the meantime modern zoos see it as their responsibility to provide our closest relatives with adequate living conditions.


Sidebar: Return to the wild

Gone are the days when the sole purpose of zoos was to entertain visitors with a display of exotic animals. Modern zoos engage in wide-ranging activities: They fund field studies and provide experts with the opportunity to set up wildlife sanctuaries and conduct research that cannot be done in the wild, such as DNA analyses.

But in light of the staggering pace of wildlife extinction, their foremost role is arguably in conservation. Just in the past six years, the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the World Conservation Union (abbreviated as IUCN) has grown by about 5,000 new species and now includes more than 15,000.

According to the IUCN, one in every four mammals and one in every eight birds is facing a high risk of extinction in the near future. The main reason is the destruction of natural habitats, caused primarily by human activity. In the case of the great apes, illegal trade is another major factor; poachers often kill the mother and accompanying adults to obtain an infant, with six to 10 apes dying for one that is captured. Yet another factor is illegal hunting: logging has exposed previously sheltered parts of the forest, giving thousands of hungry workers access to the apes' hideouts.

"There may soon be no orangutans and no other species living in the rain forest, so it's absolutely necessary to keep lots of endangered species in the zoo, to have the opportunity one day to bring them back to the wild," says Dr. Becker of the Karlsruhe Zoo. The list of threatened species reintroduced to the wild is growing; among the most famous are the Arabian oryx and the California condor.

No less important is the role of zoos in raising awareness about conservation. One prominent example has been an EAZA petition aimed at stopping what's known as the bushmeat crisis - the butchering of gorillas, chimpanzees and others of Africa's wild animals for meat. Backed by 1.9 million signatures collected across Europe - including over 5,000 contributed by Israeli zoos - it was submitted in 2001 to the European Parliament. Since much of the logging in Africa is done by European commercial interests or with European Union aid, the petition asked the EU to take measures to curb over- hunting. In January of 2004, the parliament passed a resolution in support of the petition.

The campaign has shown how much the zoos can do towards educating the public about endangered species.

"If you are not familiar with these animals, then who cares?" says the Ramat Gan Safari's Dr. Amelia Terkel. "As the famous quote goes, you care about what you know."


Photo credit:

"Orang Utan, Semenggok Forest Reserve, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia" by Eleifert - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons