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Harambe, the silverback gorilla that was fatally shot

Gorillas handle humans with kid gloves because they perceive us to be fragile, says expert

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Last week, a silverback gorilla was fatally shot by a member of Cincinnati Zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team, sparking outrage from animal rights activists and conservationists around the world.

The western lowland gorilla was reportedly shot dead so that authorities at the zoo could rescue a three-year-old child who had fallen into the captive animal’s enclosure.

According to Dr Jean Felix Kinani, the founder and executive director of One Health Approach in Conservation (OHAC), the gorilla, which was known as Harambe, was likely trying to protect the toddler and had no intentions of killing him.

“After watching the video of Harambe’s killing, I noticed that the silverback gorilla was in fact simply being protective of the boy,” Dr Kinani told Travel News Rwanda.

“At first, the gorilla was simply surprised and it demonstrated positive behaviour,” Dr Kinani added. “But when the child’s mother and other people present began to make noise, the silverback became agitated and of course changed its behaviour. When a gorilla feels uncomfortable, it becomes aggressively protective (of infants).”

Dr Kinani’s 11 years experience working as a veterinary doctor with an organisation of vets that monitors the health of mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park equipped him with a profound understanding of behaviours of gorillas.

The wildlife vet says: “According to my understanding of the silverback, Harambe had no intentions of killing the boy…and if he wanted to do so, he would have killed him in one second.”

Yet, from the time the boy fell into the gorilla’s enclosure, it took around 10 minutes before zoo officials decided that Harambe must die.

“Under the conditions, zoo officials should have decided differently,” says Dr Kinani. “The most feasible options were two: either to divert the attention of the gorilla by giving it food after requesting visitors to leave, or to tranquillize him after seeking a veterinary doctor’s consent. In the case of Harambe, such decisions were tricky but possible — if the zookeeper had been comfortable and conversant with the gorilla.”
Primate biology
However, Thane Maynard, the Cincinnati Zoo director, told the media during a press conference on Monday that Harambe acted erratically and was “clearly disoriented”. Tranquillizing the gorilla, he said, wouldn’t have been effective under the circumstances because it might not have taken effect for several minutes, causing panic in the animal and therefore making it more dangerous.

“You can’t take a risk with a silverback gorilla,” Maynard said before describing Cincinnati Zoo critics as people who “don’t understand primate biology.”

But Dr Kinani understands primate biology and begs to differ. According to the Rwandan wildlife veterinarian and primatologist, the quick decision to shoot Harambe was evidence of lack of understanding of the behaviour of the gorilla.

Dr Kinani says that the fact that Harambe wrapped his arm around the boy meant that he accepted him in his area and that he wanted to show the shouting crowd that he was in control.

“The gorilla knew that the boy was fragile, even wild gorillas percieve human beings to be fragile — young or adult — so they never use a lot of force on us,” he says.

Dr Kinani thinks that zookeepers and vets should always be present during visitations and ready to act in case of any accident. “An emergency protocol must always be in place,” says Dr Kinani, adding that in the first place gorillas and other wild animals should be left to live in their natural habitat.

“In Africa we advocate for gorillas to be kept in sanctuaries (for those that are recovered from poachers) or, better still, left to roam in their natural habitat,” Dr Kinani says.

According to him, keeping gorillas in a zoo negates the essence of wildlife and wilderness. “For us who take care of free-ranging gorillas, we would like to see them free and in their natural habitat,” he says.
Dr Jean Felix Kinani can be contacted via:
One health Approach for Conservation

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