The Magazine of South Carolina

Riverbanks Zoo's Magic Forest

West African gorillas are stealing the limelight in Columbia.


Photos by Robert P. Wilkins

Kwan Dominates the Riverbanks Gorilla Troop

Kowali the Gorilla

Kwan Strikes a Pose on all Fours

Bulera the Gorilla

Kwan Basks in the Sun

In deepest, darkest Africa, Ndoki means "sorcerer"—and the transformation of what was once Riverbanks’ group sales area and outdated construction into The Ndoki Forest is nothing short of magic. As part of the $19-million Riverbanks Zoo 2002 expansion project, The Ndoki Forest is approximately five acres of new animal exhibits, lush plantings and unique visitor services.

The transformation began in 1999 as two massive hills of clay that would shape the gorilla exhibit rose from the ground. Next, clearing for the elephant exhibit and African Village pushed the Columbia zoo’s boundaries farther into the wooded area along the Lower Saluda River.

Riverbanks’ Ndoki Forest takes its name from a remote river in the Republic of the Congo. Its waters flow through a tropical forest that supports a great abundance of wildlife, including gorillas, elephants and chimpanzees that may never have seen a human. It is one of the world’s last undisturbed natural sanctuaries—yet it is threatened by loggers and poachers. Riverbanks has recreated this part of Africa as a sanctuary for its gorillas and elephants, giving visitors the opportunity to see these magnificent animals and learn more about them and their natural habitat.

For Executive Director Satch Krantz, The Ndoki Forest is clearly the centerpiece of the Riverbanks’ Zoo 2002 expansion project. "In the last two years, nearly 50 percent of Riverbanks has been renovated. In 1999 we began the Zoo 2002 project by tearing down the old birdhouse. Since then, Riverbanks has

opened a new entrance plaza and Lemur Island, The Birdhouse at Riverbanks, the West Columbia Garden Entrance and the gorilla exhibit. By the end of the year, the elephant, meerkat and African village will be ready for visitors. Then, in Spring 2002, we will open the Koala Knockabout, featuring Australian animals."

The Ndoki Forest exhibit was built by North Lake Construction Company of Lexington. Constructing something as specialized as a gorilla holding facility and exhibit was quite an unusual undertaking. Fortunately, North Lake’s owners, Janet and Royce Lehman, already had gained valuable experience in zoo construction while building the new Birdhouse at Riverbanks. North Lake also is serving as the general contractor for the remaining Ndoki Forest exhibits for elephants and meerkats, as well as for the African Village, which will include a restaurant and authentic African lodge.

Most visitors will have their first encounters with the gorillas in the 4,000-square-foot Ndoki Base Camp, with its ample public viewing areas of the gorillas both indoors and outdoors. The visitor space features nose-to-nose viewing of the outdoor exhibit and animals through a 36-foot span of glass. During inclement weather, visitors observe the gorillas in the enclosed group room.

The public space of Base Camp is filled with entertaining and educational graphics. Adults and children can compare their hands to that of a gorilla, locate the natural habitats of all five species of the great apes and learn what types of food gorillas prefer. Other graphics include a history of the The Ndoki Forest, facial expressions and body language of gorillas and ID panels for Riverbanks’ gorilla troop.

Visitors will have two outdoor viewing spots of the gorillas in their lush habitat. Riverbanks’ Habitat Horticulture staff began planting thousands of trees, shrubs, plants and grasses in late 2000. By researching the environment of the Congo, they recreated the look with available plants suited for Columbia’s climate. Bamboo, palms and banana trees take the visitor’s imagination on safari when viewing the Ndoki complex.

Gorillas are not good swimmers, so a major water feature is not included in the exhibit. However, they have a natural curiosity for water. According to Steve Wing, curator of mammals, the design team added a waterfall with a small pool for the gorillas’ enjoyment. "Keepers are able to place small food items such as nuts and carrots into the pool for the gorillas to fish out."

Riverbanks’ initial troop consists of four western lowland gorillas—three adult females and one adult male. Riverbanks acquired them from Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, which is planning a renovation of its Great Ape facility. The animals will be in Columbia three to five years. During that time, Riverbanks’ curatorial staff will begin assembling another troop to take their place.

The male and leader of the troop is Kwanzaa (Kwan), a 12-year-old born at the North Carolina Zoo. Kwan has an impressive behavioral repertoire, including specialized training for his appearance in the film Return to Me. Kwan’s coloration is beginning to change as he matures to become a silver-back. He is quite comfortable and compliant with keepers, and as the dominant gorilla, he sets the tone for the behavior of the entire troop toward one another and their keepers.

The three female gorillas were born at Lincoln Park Zoo. Kumba, 31, is the mother of 23-year-old Kowali. Bulera is 12.

Kumba was one of the first captive-born gorillas in the United States. The most dominant female in the troop, she uses some of that dominance to challenge keepers during daily interaction and can be reluctant to interact.

Kowali, Kumba’s daughter, behaves shyly to-ward keepers when she is with the troop but reacts very well one-on-one with her keeper. She is a bit chubby and has reddish-brown fur on her head.

Bulera was the last member to join the troop. She is shy and has yet to form a strong bond with the other females. She is quite gentle and works well with the keepers.

The troop is usually well integrated and peaceful. Social grooming is common. Most of the day is spent foraging for food and resting. Communication among the troop is both vocal and full-body. Gorillas also communicate through facial expressions and other body language.

While the gorilla is the largest of the apes, the western lowland gorilla is the smallest of the three gorilla subspecies. Kwan stands about five-and-a-half feet tall and weighs around 350 pounds; females are half the weight of males.

Western lowland gorillas are found in the tropical rainforests of West Africa, including southwest Nigeria, Cameroon, Rio Muni, Gabon and eastern Congo. They live in primary and secondary forests with damp, hot climates similar to a South Carolina summer. Eastern lowland gorillas inhabit lowland forests more than 600 miles away in the eastern Republic of the Congo. Mountain gorillas, the best known and most often studied race, are found among the volcanoes of the northeastern Congo, western Uganda and northern Rwanda.

All gorillas are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and wild-born gorillas are banned from international trade by CITES (Conference on International Trade of Endangered Species). Between 30,000 and 50,000 gorillas are estimated to remain in the wild. Threats to their survival include the destruction of habitat and poaching.

At present, more than 325 lowland gorillas can be seen in North American zoos. According to Wing, zoos have made great strides in breeding gorillas in captivity while working to help gorillas in the wild.

"Zoos maintain a policy of not accepting gorillas caught from the wild or ‘orphaned’ gorilla infants," he says. "This practice serves to deter the hunting of wild gorillas, which is illegal."

The next phase of Ndoki, scheduled to open in mid-October, includes an elephant exhibit featuring a 3,000-square-foot pool, large boulders, a mud bank, a "floating dock" and a covered viewing area. The landscaping for the elephant exhibit encircles the habitat, with very little planting within the exhibit except for grasses.

The elephant exhibit will have interactive graphics throughout the area. Visitors will learn why an elephant is built the way it is, hear how elephants communicate and even walk and climb in an elephant "graveyard."

Tucked along the fringe of The Ndoki Forest is a recreated African village. The centerpiece of the village is the rustic Ndoki Lodge that seats 300 and is available for meetings, parties and festivals. The lodge overlooks the elephant exhibit and pool and features indoor and outdoor seating, capturing the charm of African architecture and crafts. A pizza restaurant and snack bar with thatched umbrella tables complete the village.

The meerkat exhibit also will be viewed from Ndoki Lodge. These curious little mammals will reside in an area that mimics their natural habitat as well, with a flowing stream, scattered boulders for shade and climbing and a faux termite mound for feeding. Tunnels within the mound will contain food items for the meerkats, and "hunting" for their meals will keep them mentally and physically active.

The allure of exotic Africa has been recreated in Columbia, South Carolina. Riverbanks’ Ndoki is a magical place that excites the human spirit and imagination. 

This article was provided by the staff of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia.


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