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Djala's Homecoming and the Way Ahead for Conservation

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A few months ago a magnificent silverback gorilla called Djala took his first footsteps back on African soil 30 years after his family was massacred by hunters. He was accompanied by four of his wives and another four of his offspring.

Djala and his family were returned by The Aspinall Foundation from its Port Lympne wildlife park in Kent, England to the wilds of Africa. It was a unique journey and the first time a whole family of gorillas or indeed of any other endangered species has been returned to their ancestral homelands.

The infant Djala was found tortured, starving, chained and close to death by conservationists. He was helicoptered out of the jungle - HIS homeland - and taken on a life changing journey to The Aspinall Foundation's wildlife park, in Kent, England.

There our foundation gave him the chance to grow into the mighty silverback nature intended him to be. Over the years he mated with seven wives siring 13 offspring.

Traditional conservationists might say that The Aspinall Foundation had done its job in rescuing Djala and providing conditions of benign and loving captivity in which he could survive and breed.

I passionately believe they would be wrong. I do not believe that keeping and breeding animals in captivity can or should be the end game of conservation in the 21st Century.

That end game I believe has to be, wherever possible, the safe return of these wonderful animals to their ancestral homelands, to the wild where nature meant them to live before the ravages of mankind drove so many species either to or close to extinction.

Mankind, as the sole superpower on Earth, owes more to the animals with whom we share the planet than simply stockpiling them in captivity for viewing in unnatural surroundings.

Our extraordinary power gives us a fundamental responsibility to do more than simply to house animals in zoos and wildlife parks where captive breeding programmes tend to encourage inter-breeding, further jeopardising threatened species.

We have to shift the whole conservation emphasis from the idea of merely keeping animals caged in collections to one which has its heart the aim of returning animals to the wild.

Back to the wild is the theme which runs through everything The Aspinall Foundation does. Over the years we have seen more than 130 gorilla births in our wildlife parks and returned to the wilds of Gabon where we help secure a million acres of jungle roughly half that number.

We have also returned from captivity to their native lands rhino, hyena, langur, gibbons and Przewalski horses and plan to take more species back to the wild in the future.

The return of Djala and his family to the jungles where their ancestors roamed for thousands of years is one of the more extraordinary feats we have managed to achieve with the help of our partners, DHL.

They provided the specially customised transport plane and logistics to take Djala and his family on their 24 hours journey from Howletts wildlife park in Kent to their true home in Africa.

Djala's journey however will not be complete until early this Spring. At the moment the family is acclimatising to the jungle on a 12 acre island in the Mpassa River in a protected one million acres reserve of jungle in Gabon.

There, under the watchful eye of an Aspinall Foundation team they are re-learning the tricks and wiles of living free in the jungle.

They are all happy and thriving and, when we feel the time is right - probably very soon - we will build a bridge from the island to the mainland reserve.

There will be no question of any of the family being driven across the bridge. When they choose to make their walk to freedom will be left entirely to their instincts.

I will be there to watch it with the team when it happens. Somehow, I suspect we won't have to wait too long.

For animals, as for humans, freedom is a precious commodity and something which is natural and right.

I somehow suspect that Djala won't want to wait too long before taking his family across the bridge and back to the life and rituals of ancestors who were born and died free before mankind ravaged their homelands.

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