When she was born on June 25, her mother, Hope, held her so tightly that zookeepers weren't able to determine her gender at first.
Now we know: The Dallas Zoo's first baby gorilla in 20 years is a healthy, bright-eyed female. She's named Saambili — pronounced sam-BEE-lee — after gorilla caretaker Aldegonde Saambili, who works for the Dallas Zoo's conservation partner, GRACE, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The caretaker works 24-hour shifts, holding, carrying, feeding, exercising and playing with the young gorillas at the Congolese conservation center. She also walks them into the forest every day, where the gorillas can get to know their natural habitat. She stays with her charges through the night, just as their gorilla mother would, the zoo said.
GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center) cares for infant gorillas confiscated from poachers or illegal pet traders. Aldegonde is one of GRACE's most experienced caretakers, zoo officials said.
Keith Zdrojewski is the Dallas Zoo’s curator of primates and carnivores and a GRACE Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group member. Because the two-decade wait for a new baby gorilla was so long, he says, the zoo wanted a name with real meaning.
“With many women in the Congo facing issues of inequality, high rates of violence, and poverty, I’m proud to honor Aldegonde Saambili with the recognition she deserves as a remarkable female conservationist in a very conflicted country," he said.
Aldegonde can be seen on a Dallas Zoo video receiving news of the naming and celebrating with GRACE colleagues.
IT'S A GIRL! Our first baby gorilla born in 20 years is a GIRL & her name is Saambili (sam-BEE-lee). We’ve named her after an influential Congolese #gorilla caretaker, Aldegonde Saambili, who works with our partner @GRACEgorillas.
— Dallas Zoo (@DallasZoo) July 20, 2018
"Thank you, Dallas Zoo, for appreciating my work caring for baby gorillas," she said in the video. "I like my job and I'll continue to do it. I'm grateful and I'll continue to protect baby gorillas."
Baby Saambili is almost a month old now. The zoo says she's gripping firmly onto Hope's chest and nurses often. In about five months, Saambili will be able to hold her head up steadily and grip even tighter, which will help her transition from being craddled on her mother's belly to riding on Hope's back.
The zoo's animal care team estimates that she was around five pounds at birth, a healthy weight. Saambili's mom Hope delivered in the primate barn after laboring for only about an hour.
Saambili is Hope's second baby. She delivered her first in 2004 at the zoo in Albuquerque, N.M. Hope arrived at the Dallas Zoo in February 2017.
Saambili's dad, a first-timer, is the handsome Subira.
- Africa has an estimated 350,000 western lowland gorillas, the critically endangered subspecies that the Dallas Zoo cares for, according to the zoo.
- There are roughly 3,800 Grauer’s gorillas — or eastern lowland gorillas, the subspecies GRACE cares for — 880 mountain gorillas, and 300 Cross River gorillas remaining in the wild.
- Western lowland gorilla females like Hope weigh between 150 and 200 pounds and stand 4 1/2 feet tall.
- In the wild, gorillas live for 30 or 40 years, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. In captivity under human care, gorillas can live into their 50s.
- Poaching and disease have reduced western lowland gorillas numbers by more than 60 percent over the last 20 to 25 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Even if all of threats were removed, scientists estimate that the population would require around 75 years to recover.