Welcome, ‘Little One’: Critically Endangered Gorilla Born At National Zoo

This was years in the making: An adorable, critically endangered male lowland gorilla has been born at Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Zoo staff have named him Moke [Mo-KEY], a name that means "little one."

He's the first one to be born at the National Zoo in nine years, perfect and wrinkly and clinging to his mom, 15-year-old Calaya. She came to the zoo in February 2015 after scientists recommended that she might be a good candidate to breed there. Moke's father is a 26-year-old named Baraka.

"The birth of this western lowland gorilla is very special and significant, not only to our Zoo family but also to this critically endangered species as a whole," Meredith Bastian, curator of primates, said in a statement.

Zoo staff say they are "cautiously optimistic that the newborn will thrive," particularly because Calaya is nursing and cradling baby Moke. (The name is taken from the Lingala language, which is spoken in several central African countries.)

There was always a possibility that Calaya would not care for her infant — and that's why the team worked intensively with her to maximize the chances that she would.

"The primate team's goal was to set Calaya up for success as best we could, given that she is a first-time mother. Doing so required great patience and dedication on the part of my team, and I am very proud of them and Calaya," Bastian said.

One of the animal keepers, Melba Brown, figured out that the best way to teach Calaya was for her to see other gorillas train. Here's what happened:

"This breakthrough helped Brown bond with Calaya and gain her trust. The gorilla quickly mastered basic husbandry behaviors, which formed the basis for more complicated maternal training, including ultrasounds, urinating on cue for hormone analysis and breast manipulation for lactation assessments and nutrient analysis. Brown helped to reinforce Calaya's maternal behaviors by presenting her with photos of mother gorillas and giving her a plush gorilla toy to gently touch and kiss."

Calaya gave baby Moke a kiss immediately after he was born, which was surely a major relief for the animal keepers.

The birth itself was caught on video, which you can watch here. (Warning: Naturally, it is both amazing and perhaps not suitable for all viewers.)

And while Calaya appears to be bonding with Moke, the zoo does have a backup plan. Primate keepers have identified a possible foster mom should Calaya exhibit "less than complete care." That job would fall to Mandara, an adult female who is part of Calaya's gorilla troop and has had six offspring. The zoo has nicknamed her "Super Mom." In fact, Mandara acted as a foster mother to Moke's dad, Baraka, after he was born.

"This infant's arrival triggers many emotions — joy, excitement, relief — and pride that all of our perseverance in preparing Calaya for motherhood has paid off," Brown said. "We will provide support to her if need be, but I have every confidence that Calaya will be a great mom to Moke. I am excited to see how he will fit into the group dynamic. There are a lot of different personalities in this family troop, but they all work well together."

Moke was born on Sunday, and animal staff are keeping their distance from mother and baby to let them bond. The zoo's Great Ape House was initially closed so that it would be quiet for the pair, but the zoo announced Tuesday morning that it is now open for visitors to see the rare newborn gorilla.

Western Lowland Gorillas have been classified as critically endangered by the IUCN since 2007. The animals are native to western Africa and the population in the wild continues to decrease. The IUCN estimates that the population declined by 18.75 percent between 2005 and 2013 due to poaching, habitat loss and die-offs from the Ebola virus.

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