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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Home for Gorillas in the Bronx Zoo

Air Date: Week of

Neal Rauch (as in OUCH) visits the Bronx Zoo's new Congo Gorilla Forest. The exhibit features some very realistic aspects of life in the wild for the jungle animals, and delivers a hefty conservation punch.


CURWOOD: New York City has changed a lot in the 20 years or so since Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five sang this early hip-hop classic. Parts of the city are now less like a jungle. But then again, at least one part has become a lot more like a jungle.

(Jungle birds)

CURWOOD: Six and a half acres of the city have been transformed into an African forest. This is the Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo, now home to 22 gorillas and hundreds of other animals. The $43 million exhibit takes zoos into a whole new terrain, as it tries to reproduce the wild as closely as possible, including the reality of death and destruction. From the Bronx, Neal Rauch has our report.

RAUCH: The goal of the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest is to take visitors out of an urban environment and transport them into an African rainforest. And at first glance it seems to work, at least for this six-year-old.

(To child) What does it feel like you're near, David?

DAVID: A forest.

RAUCH: An actual jungle?

DAVID: Yeah. And it looks like they're very wild monkeys. I see three of them. One over there, one there, and one there.

RAUCH: We're at the entranceway to the exhibit, and we'll have to walk more than halfway through an elaborately recreated rainforest before seeing any gorillas. Some of it, like the black and white colobus monkeys that little David saw, is real. Some of it, like the piped-in jungle sounds, is not. But all of it is designed to evoke the feeling of passing through an entire ecosystem. Bronx Zoo project manager Lee Ehmke says this is not your typical stare-at-the-animals exhibit.

EHMKE: We want this to feel like you're exploring on a forest trail and occasionally getting glimpses of animals through the foliage. What we're looking at right now are a pair of okapi, which are a very rare, secretive, forest-dwelling relative of the giraffe, found only in the Eturi Forest region of Congo.

RAUCH: The okapi are creatures Dr. Seuss might have created. Their necks are unusually long, and they have tongues that are long enough to lick their own eyes. But little Benjamin is more interested in a snake.

BENJAMIN: I see it. A baby snake.

RAUCH: Actually, the snake is a fake. It's hard to mix different species together without some of them eating others. So some animals are just models, says Lee Ehmke, and others only appear to share the same space.

EHMKE: We've designed it so it looks like it's one continuous forest and the animals are simply moving through it. But in fact, they're separated by hidden moats and some of the stainless steel mesh and other things that we've seen.

(Flowing water)

RAUCH: The exhibit, from its flora to its fauna, has been painstakingly constructed, including several 50-foot-tall trees, some of which were first planted here as far back as ten years ago. Curator of horticulture Rob Halperin says much of the landscape only mimics the African jungle.

HALPERIN: The challenge for us is to create a believable African tropical forest that could survive New York. So the 400 species of plants we used were selected to, in some cases, just give the right feel and ambiance of a tropical forest in Africa.

RAUCH: To help give the true feel of a modern tropical rainforest, the centerpiece of the next stop along the exhibit is a giant tree that's been nearly cut in half by a chainsaw.

EHMKE: The African rainforest, up until about ten or 15 years ago, was relatively untouched compared to the Amazon or Asian rainforest.

RAUCH: Again, Bronx Zoo project manager Lee Ehmke.

EHMKE: But as commercial pressures are increasing, primarily for logging, these forests are increasingly under threat. And the logging itself may not be the most destructive aspect of it. It's the process of getting in to do the logging. The roads that are created to bring logging vehicles in become highways that encourage commercial bush meat trade. Animals that were traditionally eaten by local cultures are now sold in marketplaces and are part of an export economy. The roads also encourage migration of people into the forest.

RAUCH: The exhibit's most disturbing display is a color photograph of a severed gorilla head sitting in a bloody bowl. Lee Ehmke says after much debate, zoo officials decided this graphic image was appropriate.

EHMKE: It's very representative of what's going on. It's estimated that last year in Cameroon alone, over 800 gorillas were killed and sold in markets for food.

RAUCH: But standing next to the nearly severed tree, Ehmke says the message is not all gloom and doom.

EHMKE: Surrounding us are exhibits that are sort of the good news, looking at what Wildlife Conservation Society is doing in Africa, working with local governments and local peoples to combat the threats that this tree represents.

(Documentary music up and under)

RAUCH: With the conservation message delivered, it's time to meet the stars. We're ushered into a darkened auditorium, and after a brief film a curtain swings open. Behind a thin glass plate, Orphan-eeda, an adult female, stares us down, her arms crossed. She appears to be feeling superior to her fellow primates on the other side of the barrier. And why not? The people inside the building are surrounded on three sides by 22 lowland gorillas in their naturalized habitat. It's almost like we're the ones on display. The crowd oohs and aahs as five-year-old twin males wrestle under the watchful eyes of another adult female, the gorilla equivalent of their nanny. Then there's Dan, a silverback gorilla snoozing right against the glass. This 30-something male was sent here to mate, but so far there has been no monkeying around.

McCANN: He had not been in a group to learn how to be a silverback male and a breeding male, and these things take time. And when you're 30, it takes even longer. (Laughs)

RAUCH: Associate curator of primates Colleen McCann says in all other respects the gorillas seem to be adjusting to their newly-created home.

McCANN: They are socializing. They are exploring the environment. They are climbing, foraging for their food.

RAUCH: All but two of the Bronx Zoo gorillas were born in captivity and lived in a traditional zoo environment of metal bars and cold porcelain floors. So their new naturalistic setting probably seems somewhat unnatural. To ease the transition, Colleen McCann says it was important to keep the gorilla groups intact.

McCANN: If we disrupted your family, that would be very stressful to you.

RAUCH: More than 40 gorillas have been born here during the last three decades. That, says Lee Ehmke, is a far cry from when the Bronx Zoo first opened 100 years ago.

EHMKE: There's a very interesting quote from the first Bronx Zoo director, William Hornaday, who imported a baby gorilla and put out a newspaper article saying, please come see the gorilla because we don't think he's going to last very long. And they didn't, because at that time very little was known about what gorillas needed for a healthy life.

(Children's voices in the background)

RAUCH: Ehmke says that zoos are very different places today, their mission changing from solely entertainment to education and conservation. And the conservation link is a key component of this exhibit. In the final room, visitors can choose to send their three dollar admission fee to various conservation projects.

EHMKE: That direct link is really the thing that sets this zoo exhibit apart from any that's ever been done before. By coming to this exhibit, Bronx Zoo visitors will become conservationists. And we're hoping it also inspires interest in local conservation issues as well.

COROLI: Three different choices you can make, Katie.

RAUCH: Dawn Coroli and Linda Filaberty came from upstate New York to visit the exhibit with their children.

FILABERTY: So remember those gorillas that you saw in the movie that they were poaching?

COROLI: Okay, and we know now --

FILABERTY: You're going to help save them.

CHILD: I did it, too!

(A ding sounds)

FILABERTY: [See how your money flies over there to Africa.

(Flowing water)

FERNANDEZ: What I think is really remarkable about this exhibit is, just over that hill is the Bronx, and you have no idea how close you are to a city. You really feel like you're in a tropical forest.

RAUCH: Living on Earth's resident animal expert Donna Fernandez worked with gorillas for six years at Zoo New England. She says the sheer number of gorillas here, 22 in all, along with the well-planned design, is what separates this exhibit from others.

FERNANDEZ: You are bound to see a number of social interactions. You're going to see play, you're going to see occasionally mating behavior. But I think having such well-established groups with such a diversity of ages in the animals guarantees a success.

RAUCH: Donna Fernandez has one caveat. The glass barrier, which allows almost nose-to-nose contact with the animals, also prevents visitors from hearing the gorillas vocalize or catching a whiff of their distinct, musky odor. When it opened last summer, the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest attracted large crowds, and many braved long lines to get in. But Dawn Coroli and Linda Filaberty, the mothers from upstate New York, say it's worth the wait.

COROLI: We're talking about the humanity in the gorillas' eyes. And it was just incredible. You could see almost into their soul type of thing.


COROLI: It was just -- human. They're human. It really brings it to life.

RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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