Zoo has high hopes for arranged marriage

By Steve Connor

LONDON - He comes from a stable family background, takes a healthy interest in the opposite sex and has reached the age when it's time to settle down with a female partner or three.

Kesho, an 11-year-old gorilla born in Dublin Zoo, is to be brought to London Zoo later this month to become the new leader of a harem of three lonely females whose young male partner died following an infection.

The move is both delicate and essential because the social organisation of a band of gorillas is centred on the dominant male and without such a leader, the female group is likely to split apart in acrimonious bickering, experts believe.

Scientists at London Zoo described yesterday how the decision to bring Kesho to Britain has been a difficult one. One of the females, a gorilla called Mjukuu, is pregnant by her dead partner and Kesho may attack and kill this baby when it is born in November.

Yet it is even more likely Mjukuu and her baby will suffer badly if no male is introduced to stabilise the social cohesion of the group, which is why the zoo decided to act quickly and bring Kesho to London this month, said Dr David Field, the zoological director.

"The introduction of a new male in these circumstances is very precarious," Field said. It is known from observations of wild gorillas that when a new male takes over an existing harem he is likely to kill any infants fathered by the previous leader, he added.

Kesho's age and stable family background - he was born in a zoo and raised by his parents - makes him an ideal candidate to take over the role played by Yeboah, the 13-year-old male who died in March. Kesho, who would be equivalent in age to an 18-year-old man, is still a "blackback" male, meaning that he has yet to achieve the maturity of a fully grown "silverback" lowland gorilla.

This means Kesho is likely to "grow into" his new role as leader of the group and perhaps be less inclined to attack the new infant.

The last time London Zoo had a newborn gorilla was 22 years ago. Experts in gorilla behaviour will be on hand night and day to oversee Kesho's introduction.

It is hoped Kesho will mate quickly with Mjukuu, which will make it less likely for him to reject the newborn infant. The zoo also hopes he will mate with another slightly older female called Effie. The third female, Zaire, is believed to be too old to breed.

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