Getting To Know The "Taiping 4"

T4

Michael Booth, the same photographer that went to Indonesia with me, recently returned from South Africa where he photographed the infamous Taiping 4 Gorillas. His intention was to follow them to their new home in Cameroon, however unforeseen circumstances prevented that.....

Just as I arrived to the Birdwood Guesthouse in Pretoria after a +24hr journey from Mexico, I received news that the T4 Gorilla move had a fair chance of being postponed. My initial feeling was of incredulity, and I somehow tried to convince myself that everything would work out in the end.

The logistics and planning around the move had gone on for months and it was hard to believe that after such careful planning, it was now about to be called-off in the eleventh hour.

Heading towards the National Zoological Gardens accompanied by IFAW’s Neil Greenwood and Felix Lankester from Pandrillus Foundation, I forgot all about the tense situation and excitement grew as I was soon to meet the famous Taiping Four Gorillas.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Zoos, animals restricted to a life in cages always seemed unnatural to me, and while I headed towards the Gorilla enclosure, I tried my best to ignore the fact that encaged animals were all around me.

Before actually meeting the T4, I saw Hobbit, a very imposing adult Western Lowland Gorilla, alone in the outside enclosure, observant, and defiant. He was a lone Gorilla and was kept separated from the other four as habituating him to new members facing the upcoming move was pointless and possibly cruel as Hobbit would be left alone shortly thereafter.

Walking towards the T4’s inner enclosure, I first caught a glimpse of Izan; he was standing near the glass separating him from the public. He was calm and unfazed but always seemed well-aware of everything going on around him.

Towards the back part near their hammocks, Abbey, Tinnu and Oyin played around. These three female Western Lowland Gorillas were older than Izan (the only male) and also larger than him, although it took careful observation to realize it.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend some time with them and to start knowing the small, but very distinct, differences in their attitudes. Izan: curious and shy, Abbey: dominant and playful, so on, and so forth. It’s always great (if time allows) to sit back and observe these amazing animals before you start taking photos or video. And today, I was focused on learning more about them and how each reacted and interacted.

That same afternoon, while finishing lunch, we received word that the meeting between Zoo and Government officials had transpired, alas, the move had been postponed until further notice and a great deal of frustration gripped us all.

The next few days would leave me with mixed emotions. Documenting these magnificent animals had been quite the highlight and one is immediately drawn to them. Their similarity to us humans is so evident, that after just a few days you start recognizing them and they recognize you, an immediate bond is created and it was sad to realize that we couldn’t take them back home yet. The Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon meant a much better life for these animals; they would be integrated to a larger Gorilla social group and would ultimately have a chance to return to a safe and wild environment, a small but significant way of correcting the awful wrongs that were done to them while they were still only babies.

I left South Africa after a unique and privileged experience. Getting to know these Gorillas was like getting in touch with distant relatives. Their situation was left uncertain, but we are all confident that with our continued efforts, they will go back home very soon.

New gorilla photos on flicker.

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