World holds breath as Nina starts suckling

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File photo: Chimpanzee Nina with her baby. Picture: Marc Cronje, The Jane Goodall Institute

Johannesburg - Phillip Cronjé was about to pull the plug. Two days in, and the baby chimp had yet to take his first drink of milk, and the sanctuary manager was anxious.

Pulling the plug meant going into the quarantined enclosure, taking the baby and handing him to a team of humans who would look after him.

Cronjé had just watched Nina the chimp drop her son and begin covering the baby in straw bedding. He was about to go in and get the baby. But he changed his mind; he would wait.

For hours, Cronjé and the other caregivers at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) South Africa Chimpanzee Eden sanctuary, near Mbombela in Mpumalanga, had been canvassing primate experts and vets from around the world.

“The vets told us to take the baby and start feeding him, while the primatologists said give her time,” says Cronjé, “but everyone ended off by saying it is your decision.”

They gave Nina a deadline – start feeding your baby by lunchtime on the second day or they would take it away.

Nina gave birth at 7.28am on January 23 as the world watched. This was history, the first live broadcast of a chimp giving birth.

By the time the birth took place, over 600 000 people had logged on. But behind the cameras there was worry.

Nina was a bush orphan, rescued from Sudan in 2007. She had never witnessed babies being born and would not have the support of other mothers in the troop. There was a chance she might abandon her baby.

The experts debated if Nina would be able to take to motherhood without knowledge being passed on from other female chimps. They hoped instinct would take over.

Moments after she gave birth, Nina sucked the amniotic fluid from her newborn’s mouth and nose, allowing him to take his first breath. She then ate the placenta.

Instinct had shown Nina the way.

“The world breathed a sigh of relief with us,” recalls David Oosthuizen, executive director of the institute.

The next concern was when mom and baby would latch to feed.

To give her an idea of what she was supposed to do, she was shown photographs of chimps breastfeeding. A teddy bear was even used as a prop.

Then someone suggested getting a breastfeeding woman to give Nina a lesson in child care. A few phone calls, and a mother and baby were found.

The mother fed her child in front of Nina, and perhaps that gave Nina the hint – the baby chimp latched, just before the deadline. Two weeks later, mother and child are doing well.

The bad news for Nina and baby fans is that in the next week, the camera in her enclosure will be shut down. “Nina needs to be moved out, and this will make it harder to film,” explained Oosthuizen.

However, there will be regular updates on the JGI SA chimpanzee sanctuary Facebook page.

Over the next few months, Nina will slowly be reintroduced to her family group. It’s a dangerous time, as there have been incidents where adult male chimps have killed babies.

Meanwhile, the baby will get a name. On February 23, members of the institute will post a number of names on Facebook, for which the public can vote. - The Star

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