Makokou, the Joburg Zoo’s Silverback making a speedy recovery, after surgery

23 June 2020

Makokou, the 35-year old, male, Western Lowland Gorilla who successfully underwent surgery at the Joburg Zoo on Saturday, 20 June 2020 is recuperating after a three-hour marathon operation that involved months of planning. CT scans, multiple blood tests, radiography, ultrasound, ophthalmic and dental examinations were conducted as part of the build-up to the surgery to remove polyps in his congested nasal passages.

Dr Kresen Pillay, one of the Joburg Zoo’s three veterinarians, confirmed that this was only the second documented operation of its kind in the world and that Makokou was doing great. “On Sunday he was a little sore, and pain relief medication was administered. He started eating and drinking and was more active by the afternoon. This morning he is bright, alert and active and we are extremely satisfied with his progress.”

The surgery was led by Dr Kobus Venter an ENT surgeon for human ear, nose and throat ailments with the assistance of Dr Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Jose Carlo Almansa Ruiz. Drs. Steenkamp and Ruiz are vet specialists in dentistry and maxillofacial surgery, affiliated to the veterinary faculty of the University of Pretoria (UP). They were assisted by anesthesiologists from the same faculty.

The procedure for removing polyps is similar to that of humans, said Dr Pillay. “We are not certain of the underlying cause of the growth-tissue.” Numerous samples were collected and further tests will be conducted.

On Saturday the Zoo theatre was buzzing with the team, consisting of surgeons; anesthesiologists; technical support; vet nurses and a safety officer as well as the team from the Joburg Zoo’s Veterinary Hospital. A huge media contingent was in attendance as Makokou was being wheeled into theatre. He was swiftly attached to monitors and multiple medical apparatus as the medics maneuvered around the 210Kg gorilla in the centre of the room.

“He went under smoothly,” said Dr Pillay. “His blood pressure went up, but we brought it down again with medication, and he remained stable during the surgery.” The team drew on the expertise from a similar case in Seattle in the United States, where in 2014 a gorilla underwent the same procedure. Because gorillas are so closely related to humans, the procedure for removing the polyps is similar.

Two monitors above Makokou’s head – one the CT scan of his head, the other an endoscopic nasal and sinus probe into his nasal passages – guided the surgery. “It was important that we had scans of other gorillas too,” added Dr Pillay.

The surgery came about after Makokou was found to be suffering from a chronic nasal discharge towards the latter part of 2019. He was airlifted to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital (OVAH) in May 2020 and then again on 6 June where he had a CT scan. The scanning apparatus at OVAH is large enough to handle a massive animal, the size of Makokou. A biopsy was performed, and it revealed that he had chronic rhinitis with inflammatory polyps developing in his nasal passages which is an uncommon occurrence in gorillas. There was some concern at first that he could have nasal cancer which has since been ruled out as the growths were found to be benign.

Makokou joined the Zoo, after Max, the famous crime-busting gorilla, died in 2004 of natural causes. In 1997 Max had made international headlines after he had rushed to defend his partner, Lisa, when a burglar jumped into the gorilla enclosure. Max was shot in the jaw and arm, and was taken to the Milpark Hospital, where the bullet only in his jaw was removed. Makokou who is part of the international, Zoological Information Management Stud Book (ZIMS), was born at the Stuttgart Zoo in 1985. To manage genetic diversity of gorilla populations, he arrived at the Joburg Zoo at age 19, in 2004.

The Mayoral Committee Member for Community Development, Margaret Arnolds was on hand during the surgery, and expressed concern for his health and recovery. She said: “This ground-breaking surgery is a learning and teaching experience for the veterinarian fraternity across South Africa. I want to commend the medics and veterinarians from the various institutions and Makokou’s curator and keepers who anxiously waited on the sidelines throughout the procedure. ”

World renowned narrator and award-winning producer of BBC Natural History, Sir David Attenborough, affirmed the importance of gorillas as an indicator species for human survival when he stated that, “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way we do.”

Makokou will continue to be closely monitored and if his recovery continues as planned, residents in Joburg and his fans across the globe can expect a virtual birthday party for the 35-year young primate, on 9 July 2020.