Baby chimp accepted by new Edinburgh Zoo family

A rare baby chimpanzee has gone on display at a popular zoo after being accepted into his new family’s complex hierarchy.

Picture: TSPL

Eight-week-old Velu joined his mother Heleen and the rest of the group at Edinburgh Zoo today.

With a fresh pink face, he tentatively clung to his mother for protection while the rest of the chimps swung on ropes and scavenged for food.

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Velu is a pure Western chimpanzee, an endangered species, and is the first chimpanzee to be successfully reared in Scotland in 15 years.

Picture: TSPL

He may be small and relatively bald at the moment but he will soon have a head of dark, spiky hair.

Mother Heleen is from a group of nine chimps who arrived at zoo from the Netherlands in 2010.

The Dutch chimpanzees originally started life in a research laboratory, then were rehomed to Beekse Bergen Safari Park, before moving to Edinburgh, where they live in the Budongo Trail enclosure.

Heleen is said to be a “great mother”, grooming and protecting Velu who has been accepted by the other 18 chimps.

While his mother is fulfilling her role, there is doubt over the baby chimp’s father. Zookeepers believe one of two senior males in the group, Louis or Rene, is the father and a paternity test will be carried out in the future.

Sophie Pearson, team leader at the Budongo Trail, said: “We are delighted with the arrival and successful integration of Velu into our chimpanzee group.

“Still very young, Velu will look like a baby for another five years or so. He currently has a beautiful pale, pinky-coloured face which will darken as he gets older and has a mass of spiky hair.

“At Edinburgh Zoo we are extremely proud that Heleen is successfully raising Velu and that he has been accepted into the group.

“Chimpanzees learn from experience - they see their mothers and other group members give birth and raise youngsters - but unfortunately we suspect that Heleen did not have this experience in the earlier part of her life.

“However, after a tricky start, Heleen is coping extremely well and developing into a great mother - she is nursing, grooming and protecting her baby.”

Chimpanzee groups have a complex social hierarchy and can be a volatile species, so staff at the zoo had to take care when reintroducing Heleen and Velu to the group.

The birth has boosted Heleen’s status in the group and Velu will probably grow to inherit his mother’s ranking, the zoo said.

“After the birth, we slowly integrated Heleen and her baby back into the main chimpanzee group - starting first with other females and her closest male allies, then building up to them both going back into the main group,” Ms Pearson said.

“This has been successful to date and, although chimpanzee babies are always vulnerable, we are confident Heleen is fully integrated back into the group and has a lot of support from her chimp friends.

“Hand-rearing a chimpanzees has a huge impact on the individual as they are extremely intelligent with complex needs. A hand-reared chimp may, in fact, never fully be an independent chimp.

“With this in mind, keepers intervened as little as possible - Velu had to be bottle-fed by keepers for a few days at the beginning of his life because Heleen put him down and showed little interest in caring for him herself.

“However, he was never out of Heleen’s sight and she was able to watch him being fed until she decided she wanted to take him back, which she did, to everyone’s delight.”

Chimpanzees are found in the rainforests of west and central Africa and the Budongo Trail enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo has been designed to recreate the habitat.

It features three pods which vary in degrees of temperature, light and humidity to reflect different conditions of the rainforest.

Staff are sure Velu will prove popular with visitors.

“Chimpanzee babies are absolutely gorgeous and the great thing about them from a visitor’s point of view is that they stay babyish for a very long time,” Ms Pearson said.

“A baby chimp doesn’t really start growing up until they are five years old, so he’ll be on his mother’s back and be very playful and look cute for several years.”