Image: Kim Gorga
At Bristol Zoo, a female western lowland gorilla has recently been born via caesarean. Her birth was particularly significant as she was the first gorilla in the UK to have been born via C-section. David Cahill, the professor of Medical Education and Reproductive Medicine at the city’s university, conducted the procedure. This gynaecologist, who works at St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol, has personally delivered thousands of human babies by caesarean; but this was his first time delivering a gorilla.
A caesarean or C-section is a relatively common procedure amongst humans, however it is highly unusual in primates, with only a few instances occurring worldwide. It involves making a surgical incision through the mother’s abdomen to access the uterus and infant within. The emergency procedure was performed on the baby’s mother Kera after it was thought she was suffering from pre-eclampsia, a condition also found in humans with symptoms that include high blood pressure. Similarly to humans, female gorillas give birth to one infant after a gestation period of almost nine months. However, Cahill’s medical team decided to operate before the birth occurred naturally – as a natural birth would have endangered the health of both Kera and the baby.
Fortunately, Cahill and his colleagues successfully delivered the baby gorilla on February 12, welcoming a female that weighed a tiny 2lbs 10 oz (the normal birth weight of a gorilla is between 4 and 5lbs). The immediate moments after the birth were tense: the baby was put into intensive care and received life saving mouth-to-mouth CPR.
However, Rowena Killick, one of the vets at the zoo who assisted with the birth, has confirmed that both mother and baby gorillas are now doing well. Killick stated that, “the baby needed some intensive care immediately after birth and it is still very early days, but we are cautiously optimistic and will be keeping a very close eye on both her and Kera”. The baby is being hand-reared by the keepers at the zoo and is receiving 24-hour care.
The western lowland gorilla is a subspecies of gorilla endemic to the rainforests of central Africa. Bristol Zoo estimates that there are approximately 90,000-110,000 individuals remaining in the wild, and the gorilla is included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of “Critically Endangered” species. The declining numbers are thought to be due to a combination of factors: the poaching of gorillas in the bush meat trade and the spread of the Ebola virus, which has a high mortality rate in primates.
The yet to be named infant becomes the ninth western lowland gorilla at Bristol Zoo. Although she is not currently on view to the public, the baby is set to become a star attraction. The birth supports the zoo’s long-term aim of managing the population of gorillas in captivity, and therefore the approach of ‘cautious optimism’ towards Kera and the new baby can also be applied to wider gorilla conservation.