New gorilla joins Riverbanks bachelor group

jholleman@thestate.comJune 26, 2013 

— Ajari, the new gorilla at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, fits right in with the other two males in the exhibit.

And fitting right in means he tries to assert his superiority with chest beating and posturing whenever the others come near.

It’s what gorillas do – a dance that has gone from a macho pas de deux between Riverbanks veterans Chaka and Mike to a more complicated pas de trois with the recent arrival of Ajari.

Riverbanks announced the addition of Ajari on Wednesday, but he has been at the zoo for several months. The 12-year-old, who was born at the San Diego Zoo, moved to Riverbanks from the Knoxville Zoo. He quickly adjusted to his new barn, showing little stress, said Sara Floyd, a senior keeper who works with the gorillas.

The zoo doesn’t publicize its new additions until the animals are adjusted enough to be on exhibit for long periods for visitors to see.

Ajari slowly has gone from quarantine with no contact with the others to spending short periods with them. Wednesday was the first time Ajari was allowed to spend more than a couple of hours in the exhibit at the same time as Chaka and Mike, Floyd said.

“They’re so new to each other they’re still establishing who’s in charge,” she said.

Almost on cue, Chaka rumbled down the well-worn path in the Gorilla Base Camp exhibit toward Ajari, who moved so quickly away from Chaka that he comically turned a damp, grassy hill into a Slip ’n’ Slide. Chaka is a 21-year-old, 405-pound silverback. Ajari, though a big boy at 375 pounds, is just beginning to develop the silver fur that marks a major step in gorilla maturity.

After his sliding escape, Ajari stared at Chaka with his lips parsed, a sign of stress. Chaka seemed less concerned, his face less tight. For now, Chaka is in charge.

Mike, 28, actually is older, but he long has been subservient to Chaka. They were moved to Riverbanks in 2004 from the Philadelphia Zoo along with a third male, Kimya. At times, it appeared Mike and Kimya were working together to try to usurp Chaka’s authority, Floyd said. When Kimya died of chronic heart, brain and lung problems in February 2011, Mike exhibited signs of stress as if he was missing a companion.

It’s too early to tell if Mike and Ajari will form that kind of bond, but it’s clear the new guy has made life more interesting in the exhibit, Floyd said. Keepers have seen a lot more posturing and even some blows landed in quick sparring sessions with no significant injuries. Such minor tussles are expected.

“The introduction process has gone very well,” said John Davis, curator of mammals at Riverbanks. “Ajari is full of personality, and we are excited to have him here at Riverbanks.”

The Riverbanks gorillas are the western lowland species found in the tropical rainforests of West Africa. Gorillas in the wild live in groups that can range from five to 30 individuals. Groups are led by a single adult male silverback and typically also include several adult females and their offspring.

When males in the wild reach a certain age, they leave the group and often travel with other males in bachelor groups. Because of the roughly 50-50 ratio of the sexes of zoo-born gorillas, many zoos now have bachelor groups rather than one silverback with several females.

Riverbanks first opened its Gorilla Base Camp in 2001 with a family of three females and a male on loan from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

The zoo Wednesday also announced the additions of two Caribbean flamingo chicks born June 11 and June 16.

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