Rockhampton Zoo’s chimpanzee troupe conquer odds to become vital for species’ survival

A baby chimpanzee hangs, one-handed, from the mesh roof of a large zoo enclosure while her mum keeps watch from the top of a tree branch nearby.

Another small chimp swings wildly through ropes and disappears into the sparse foliage in the enclosure.

These chimpanzees, and their four-year-old sister, are the darlings of this central Queensland zoo. They’re also a vital part of the survival of their species.

But when Blair Chapman moved from New Zealand for the opportunity to work with the chimps at Rockhampton Zoo, the troupe looked very different.

“We essentially brought a bunch of socially dysfunctional chimps together and have created this amazing cohesive family unit that’s now … one of the most successful chimp groups in Australasia in terms of breeding,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of work over the years just trying to teach the chimps how to interact with each other.

“The birth of infants into a chimp society … brings so much cohesiveness, peace, natural enrichment. It’s one of the best things to happen to chimps.”

From two chimps on death row
While it is now a key part of the Australasian Species Management Program, the zoo’s chimpanzee family started with a daring rescue mission.

Cassius, ‘Cassie’, and brother Octavius, ‘Ockie’, were due to be euthanised in 1986 but were saved with a rebellious mercy dash to Coolangatta from the city’s former mayor and councillors.

Mr Chapman said the brothers were hand-reared in an entertainment setting, missing out on vital natural behaviours.

“The first 10 years of a chimp’s life are really important. It’s where they learn everything from language, tool use, right down to mating,” he said.

“If they miss out … it’s really hard for them to then develop and learn those behaviours later in life.”

More than 20 years after Cassie and Ockie arrived at the council-run zoo, two rescued females were introduced with hopes for breeding to begin.

Samantha was raised in a New Zealand zoo, but Mr Chapman said she was “socially awkward” due to a lack of interactions with other chimps.

While Holly was raised by humans and “didn’t know what a chimp was”.

“She, unfortunately, is our most socially deprived chimp because she missed out on everything,” Mr Chapman said.

“She sat at the dinner table, she had her own clothes, her own bedroom, loved a good bubble bath, and her favourite food was lasagne.”

With behavioural issues between the four and Ockie’s death in 2013, the breeding program stalled.

Its breakthrough came when Alon and Leakey, wild-raised chimps from Israel, arrived in 2015.

Mr Chapman started at the zoo in 2016 and said being involved in the breeding program was “an incredible process to be part of”.

He had “no clue what Rockhampton was like” when he accepted the role but felt it “would have been stupid not to jump on it”.

“Working with chimps every day, not many people get to say that they do that,” he said.

“Chimps are a very dramatic species. Their life is essentially like a soap opera, and no two days are the same.

“It’s a challenge, and I love it.”

Zoo a backup plan to save species
Chimpanzees are native to several African countries but are endangered due to deforestation and poaching, among other threats.

Mr Chapman said Australia’s captive population was “a backup” in case of wild extinction and required the introduction of new genetics at times.

This process mimics the way wild female chimps will move between groups to mate.

Alon and Leakey’s daughter Capri was born in 2018 — the first chimp born in Queensland since the 1970s.

Since then, two more babies have arrived: a boy, Gandali, for Holly in 2019 and another girl, Mzuri, for Leakey in late 2021.

Eventually, Capri and Mzuri will move to other zoos as part of the breeding program.

That, Mr Chapman said, will be “an incredible moment”.

“They’re really important. We love them here, and they’re fun to watch, “Mr Chapman said.

“But on the bigger spectrum … they’re really vital to the genetic viability of the program.”

Aside from boosting conservation efforts, Mr Chapman said Alon, Leakey and the infants had taught Rockhampton’s rescued animals “natural chimp behaviours”.

Program success brings investment
Rockhampton Regional Council this year endorsed a 10-year multi-million-dollar redevelopment vision for the zoo and surrounding botanic gardens.

The plans include a visitor hub, plus extra exhibitions through refurbished and new enclosures.

Would the zoo be getting the same level of investment without the breeding program success?

“I guess that’s a personal opinion, and I would say no,” Ms Rutherford said.

“I think Capri was a definite turning point for us.

“I don’t think it was that people weren’t coming before, I think it’s that the media picked up the fact Capri was born.”