London was thrown into a brief panic today after an adult silverback gorilla escaped from the city's zoo. On social media, people in London and beyond pleaded that the gorilla be spared, hoping to avoid a repeat of the controversial killing of the zoo gorilla Harambe in Cincinnati in May.
The 18-year-old gorilla Kumbuka somehow escaped from his den at the London Zoo around 5:13 p.m. local time Thursday, zoo spokesperson Nicola Kelly confirms. And although the zoo was quickly put on lockdown, Kumbuka stayed isolated from guests, in an internal area of the exhibit.
“Staff responded immediately,” Kelly says. The metro police were called and zoo vets worked to quickly subdue Kumbuka by tranquilizing him.
Gorillas are rarely aggressive to people. And while witnesses reported that the animal looked enraged when it was first hit with the dart, Kumbuka quieted down after a few minutes.
“He has returned to his den and he is now awake and well,” Kelly said shortly after the incident.
As to how the animal escaped? The zoo doesn’t yet know, and is launching a full investigation. Kelly was unaware of any other past gorilla breakouts at the facility.
Kumbuka is a star attraction at the zoo’s “Gorilla Kingdom” exhibit, which features a colony of western lowland gorillas. “This natural and engaging environment is home to our gorillas, featuring a stunning clearing, their own personal island, and an indoor gymnasium,” the zoo writes on its website.
Kumbuka is the dominant leader of the troop. In 2013, he arrived from the Paignton Zoo. Keepers hoped he would start a family, and that's what happened in 2014, when he parented his first offspring (with mate Mjukuu): a baby female named Alika, which means “most beautiful.” In 2015 Kumbuka became a father again, to a male named Gernot. The group is rounded out by females Effie and Zaire.
As of 2013, Kumbuka stood nearly seven feet tall and weighed nearly 410 pounds, putting him toward the top end of his species.
Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered. There are fewer than 95,000 individuals in the wild, and their numbers have declined by at least 60 percent in the past 20 to 25 years. Commercial hunting for the bush-meatand wildlife trade, along with outbreaks of Ebola, have caused their numbers to drop precipitously since the 1980s. About 765 of the gorillas live in captivity in zoos.
Found in several African countries, the gorillas are slightly smaller than their cousins, the mountain gorillas. Lowland gorillas live in thick rain forests, where they form communities up to 30 individuals.
Immediately upon hearing of Kumbuka’s escape, people took to Twitter to urge authorities to exercise restraint in subduing the gorilla. Many invoked the shooting death of Harambe. In Ohio, zoo authorities made the tough call to use bullets after Harambe grabbed—and tossed around—a young boy who fell into his enclosure.
Authorities considered trying to use a tranquilizer on Harambe, but they feared the drug would take effect too slowly, giving the animal enough time to seriously hurt or even kill the child (either intentionally or, more likely, accidentally, since gorillas are known to play with their young). But much of the public had harsh words for that decision, even though the child emerged largely unhurt.
When faced with a gorilla that has escaped or has a person accidentally in its enclosure, “The public needs to have an understanding that it’s a difficult, complex situation,” Terry Maple, an expert in animals’ psychological responses to captivity and the former head of Zoo Atlanta, previously told National Geographic.
Although they prefer to avoid people, gorillas do have immense size and power, Maple said, and they must be treated with respect. Sedatives can be effective but they tend to take several minutes to kick in, meaning there can be a dangerous period.