“On this day in 1956, Colo became the first gorilla to be born in captivity. She was born in Ohio’s Columbus Zoo to Millie Christina and Baron Macombo, western lowland gorillas that had been captured in 1951. After being rejected by her mother, she was hand-reared by the zoo staff, and for the first few months of her life was dressed in human clothes. She was named following a nationwide competition, the staff at Columbus Zoo appreciating the play on the first syllables of Columbus and Ohio.
Colo did not just make history as the first gorilla born in captivity, but was also an integral part of a successful breeding program that has helped augment western lowland gorilla numbers worldwide. She produced three offspring of her own, and at of the end of 2010 was the direct progenitor of nearly 30 gorillas, including 3 great-great-grandchildren. She has been part of a programme that has seen more than 750 gorillas born in captivity since 1960.
The need for a successful breeding programme became starkly apparent during the latter half of the 20th century, as the number of gorillas in the wild plummeted dramatically. Gorillas once existed across much of central Africa, but as their natural habitat has shrunk, they have been pushed into isolated pockets and are struggling for survival. Gorillas require an abundance of lush forest, but as farming, logging, and mining have encroached on the forests of central Africa, so the gorilla population has fallen. Their numbers have been further reduced by ruthless hunting and poaching, and the population has also been affected by a succession of viral epidemics, often stemming from close contact with humans.
Of the four identified species of gorilla, all are faced with a struggle for survival. There are estimated to be between 150,000 and 200,000 western lowland gorillas in the wild, making them the most abundant of gorilla species. Despite this relatively high number, they remain highly susceptible to environmental changes and are considered critically endangered by the World Wildlife Fund. The similar Cross River gorilla, a subspecies of the western lowland gorilla is far less common–probably numbering no more than 300 in the wild. At one time it was thought to be extinct but sightings in the 1980s showed that the subspecies was still clinging onto the edge of existence. The eastern lowland gorilla numbers approximately 4000 in the wild, while the mountain gorilla, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla is even more critically endangered, with fewer than 800 thought to exist in the wild.
Gorillas live to around 30 years of age in their natural habitat, but Colo is still going strong at the grand old age of 55, and is recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest gorilla in the world. Over the years Colo has remained a celebrity, and is still one of the most viewed animals at the Columbus Zoo. Her remarkable story was even turned into a children’s book in 2011, Colo’s Story: The Life of One Grand Gorilla.”
Credit: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption: Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity, waits for her breakfast.