Like every gracious leader, the head of Taronga Zoo’s gorilla pack knows when it’s time to call it a day.
After more than 14 years overseeing his large family, the zoo’s oldest and most impressive silverback gorilla, Kibabu, will soon call it quits and move to New Zealand to enjoy his twilight years.
In a rite of passage, the 33-year-old silverback and two of his sons will leave in 2013 to form a “bachelor group” in a specialist habitat at the Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch.
New Zealand currently has no Western Lowland Gorillas, the most common gorilla seen zoos and a critically-endangered species worldwide.
The move by Taronga’s patriarch and his “blackback” sons, Fuzu and Fataki, is designed to mimic a natural occurrence in the life cycle of male gorillas in the wild, zoo primate manager Louise Grossfeldt told AAP on Thursday.
“They [younger gorillas] reach that age-bracket when they need to leave the group, which is normal … and move off and find other family groups,” said Ms Grossfeldt, who has worked with the group since they arrived at Taronga in 1996.
“If they’re a boy then they need to go and hang out with other boys for a while and do the bachelor boy thing.”
If Kibabu were to remain in the group at Taronga, his reduced agility and increased reluctance to engage in family politics would see him challenged by his sons or driven away by the females, Ms Grossfeldt said.
Too bad if he had retirement in mind though – Kibabu’s presence will be crucial for keeping the younger boys in check and educating them about their future roles.
“Kibabu is actually a very good gorilla to learn from,” says Ms Grossfeldt.
“With him being the leader of the bachelor group, he will actually be a very good role model for Fataki and Fuzu to continue to learn from.”
Since Kibabu arrived at Taronga in late 1996 from Holland, the close-to-perfect 210kg male has fathered 14 offspring.
Now, to maintain genetic diversity in the Australasian region, Taronga must seek out an new, unrelated male to take over breeding, Ms Grossfeldt said.
“The male really is the glue that hold the gorilla troupe together. Without him, the females would start to fight or move away.
“It’s good for us to keep the group moving forward, keep the females together and bring a new male to step in and continue to move the group into the future.”
Keepers from Taronga will assist in settling Kibabu, Fuzu and Fataki into their new home in Christchurch, but are definitely sad to see him go.
“There is a part of me that will miss him immensely,” said Ms Grossfeldt, who added that he was a “magnificent” gorilla.
“It’s a legacy to Kibabu and the group that he’s built that we continue to move the group forward and help support the conservation of this species. This is the way to do that.”