John Weekes

John Weekes is an NZME. News Service reporter based in Wellington.

Apes escape enclosure at Orana Park

Excitement erupted when three apes escaped their enclosure at a Christchurch wildlife park today.

Adult male gibbon Oscar, aged in his teens, inspired young males Jasper and Sian to take a walk on the wild side, stunning hundreds of visitors at Orana Park.

"He managed to swim across a moat area, which is highly unusual for a gibbon," said Rob Hall, Orana Park zoological manager. "They just do not enjoy water at all. But this little fella felt today was a good day for it and he managed to cross, which then excited the two young fellas. They dropped from a rope, from an extremely high height, to try and join him."

Visitors were taken to safe, enclosed areas in the park.

"That was quite concerning but at the end of the day we obviously managed to get everybody safely back to the enclosure without too much trouble. All necessary safety action was taken with the public - visitors and staff, so nobody was in any danger during that time."

Hall said the priority was to contain Oscar as soon as possible, and this was achieved promptly and without force.

"We used vehicles to get up close to their night house area. One of our keepers moved quickly from the vehicle into the night house. He got himself locked into one of the units in the night house so he was in a safe area.

"We then opened all the doors...and we got them indoors and locked up quite quickly. We shunned a keeper up a tree with a rope, and attached that rope to where they would normally go the island. And before we could even tie the rope, the animal was on the rope and took himself home."

Hall said the adaptable and intelligent primates kept zookeepers on their toes. An engineer would visit the site on Monday to check if any modifications were needed to the gibbon's home.

"They're very switched on. They took us quite by surprise today, to be really honest, with what they managed to do," Hall added.

Hall said darting the primates would have been a last resort. "They have a very narrow amount of muscle mass to get a dart into. You can do some serious harm on skeletal structures...if you do hit it with a dart."

Hall said gibbons generally had a pleasant demeanour.

"They are generally okay. There was no stage at which the public felt concerned. We certainly had to get [people] into safe houses, so we moved the public to all our safe areas in the park as a precaution."

Hall thanked the public for their understanding during the ape escape, which lasted for slightly over one hour. Orana had a site meeting and de-briefing after the escape.
Orana had another two gibbons, a female and her baby.

"What was good is that mom didn't leave the area with baby attached to her. She stayed on the Seaming Island and that helped a lot as well."

The Southeast Asian apes have loud vocalizations and live in small, monogamous families.

"Gibbons are small, slender, agile, and have very long arms adapted for a spectacular arm swinging locomotion called brachiation," said a report in the Nature journal. A 2006 University of Stirling study found gibbons had an "insightful" understanding when given tasks involving the use of tools to achieve goals.

- APNZ

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