The 17-year old male silverback gorilla was shot and killed after a 4-year old boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo.
It’s unclear exactly how the boy managed to get into the exhibit, but clearly he managed.
The gorilla who happened to be closest to the boy was Harabe, a 450-lb. silverback, an endangered Western Lowland Gorilla.
Video taken by a bystander clearly shows the gorilla, who could kill the boy instantly, showed no ill intent. However, quickly, the gorilla seemed not to know what to do, dragging the helpless child through the water.
Gorillas are vegetarians, and exceedingly peaceful animals (except when threatened or one silverback challenges another). In fact, a relative of the lowland gorilla – the mountain gorilla are habituated to people in Rwanda, where thousands of tourists visit annually. We were among those tourists. Here people hike in the Virunga Mountains into the gorilla’s homes. The gorillas go about their business as if people aren’t even there, yet the tourists are often only a few feet away. When the gorillas get that close, the only real concern is that the gorillas can catch our germs.
Other instances of children falling into gorilla exhibits have occurred over the years. And the ending has been very different.
Ten years later, a three-year-old boy fell nearly 20 feet into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. This time, a female gorilla named Binti Jua picked up the unconscious boy, while carrying her own infant on her back, and guarded him from other gorillas. In an incredible show of maternal care, Binti took him right to a door so that zookeepers could retrieve him. Binti actually helped out, and made the recovery easy.
Though the gorilla was not apparently threatening the child at the time – clearly odds to save the child seemed to be shooting the gorilla. But then again, what did the gorilla do wrong? At this juncture, he wasn’t threatening the child.
Ecotourism (Terra Incognita Ecotours – not everyone take folks on ‘gorilla trips’) has saved the day for Mountain Gorilla making it worthwhile in Rwanda and Uganda to do all they can to protect them In Rwanda, tourists dollars have saved the gorilla, but has also provided for improved education for countless children and infrastructure improvements in nearby cities, and throughout the country.
Like zoos or not, the very survival of our cousins – the Great Apes – may depend on zoos and wildlife parks. That’s a sad reality. And I don’t at all buy the refrain, “then let them die out.”