A critically endangered gorilla is about to be a mom, and she’s using a doll for practice

The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans will soon welcome an extraordinary new resident – a baby gorilla! The special new addition is expected through 13-year old critically endangered gorilla Tumani, a western lowland gorilla, who is expecting her first baby.

Audubon Nature Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Ron Forman shared the wonderful news in a statement: “So much hard work and dedication has gone into welcoming our first gorilla birth in more than two decades. By visiting an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo like Audubon, you are supporting our conservation efforts for critically endangered species like western lowland gorillas.”

Audubon Zoo

According to zoo curator Liz Wilson, “Everyone was incredibly excited. She had been taken off of birth control, so we were expecting and hoping that she would conceive, so it was very, very happy news to be able to confirm the pregnancy.”

The exciting news entail a lot of preparation for zoo staff, since the baby gorilla will be the first born in the zoo in 24 years. The endangered gorilla troop will have to be prepared as well, since they are not used to having an infant around.

Wilson said, “The animal care team is working with Tumani to give her additional tools in her tool belt to aid her after birth should she have difficulties with lactation, positioning of the infant, etc. Her relationship with the animal care team is crucial for success.”

Audubon Zoo

Training is already underway for Tumani to make sure that she is always holding the baby, and not playing with the baby bottle. The staff members are also making sure that the endangered gorilla is comfortable bringing the baby to the animal care team and allowing zoo keepers to help her position the baby bottle.

Audubon Zoo’s chief veterinarian Dr. Robert MacLean said, “We are working closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ gorilla birth plan to guarantee that Tumani and the infant are receiving the best prenatal care. There are many risks involved with gorilla births, especially in a troop unfamiliar with an infant, but we are working with the entire troop to ensure they are ready for the new addition.”

Audubon Zoo

Like most expectant mothers, the endangered gorilla needs tools to simulate the experience of being a new mom. The animal care team has given Tumani a gorilla baby doll, which she picks up and positions as if it were her own infant.

Made from canvas fire hose tubing, the unique doll has similar proportions and the weight of a newborn gorilla, which is about 4 pounds. The baby bottle is also unique – it has a foot-long flexible hose that leads to the nipple, which could be used if Tumani has a problem lactating or nursing.

Audubon Zoo

In case Tumani needs help with baby care, another western lowland gorilla at the zoo, Alafia, is provided daily training to assist or act as a foster mother. The gorilla troop includes Okpara, a 26-year-old silverback and father of the expected baby, and Praline, the last gorilla infant born at the Audubon Zoo, in 1996. Okpara, who came to New Orleans in 2017 from the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, is also being given intensive training in case he is chosen as a surrogate by the infant gorilla.

The birth of the baby is a hopeful sign for the future of western lowland gorillas, which have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered. This means that the species face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. The population of the critically endangered gorillas was estimated at 362,000 in 2016.

Audubon Zoo

Their population is declining at a rate of 2.7% per year, mainly due to illegal hunting, disease, and habitat loss. If this continues, their numbers could fall by 80% by 2082. About 350 of the gorillas are in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Along with maternal training, Tumani is receiving ultrasounds and daily fetal heartbeat monitoring. MacLean said a number of factors favor a successful motherhood, including Alafia’s own experience in raising a baby at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and the fact that Tumani saw younger brothers and sisters raised at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she lived until 2017.

Audubon Zoo

Ensuring the safe birth and survival of the infant will help contribute to the longevity of the endangered gorilla species. The baby is expected to be born between July 15 and August 20. Donations to the Zoo’s Recovery Fund are welcome, since these help cover costs for medical care, food, and habit maintenance.