Back to the wild: Family of Western Lowland gorillas returned to central Africa from Port Lympne Wild Animal Park near Hythe
Djala the male gorilla in his modified crate for a special DHL delivery. Picture: Dave Rolfe
A family of nine gorillas - who have been held in captivity in Kent - have begun an epic journey to central Africa to finally be released back into the wild.
The Aspinal Foundation, which runs two wild animal parks in the county, sent the Western Lowland gorillas to Gabon yesterday.
The route the gorillas from Port Lympne have taken to Africa
The gorillas will spend several months on a nearby island with keepers while they get used to the conditions before being re-introduced to the wild.
The family is headed by Djala, a 30-year-old silverback. As a baby, he was rescued from Africa and flown to the safety of Port Lympne in the 1990s where he has become one of the largest silverbacks in captivity - weighing 31st and fathering a total of 15 offspring.
The journey is part of The Aspinall Foundation's Back To The Wild campaign.
Phil Ridges, head of the gorilla section at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, near Hythe, said: "Gorillas are critically endangered and have been for a number of years. They're on the red list.
"This group came over to us to ultimately build up sufficient numbers in captivity to try release them back into safe areas in the wild."
The Aspinall Foundation runs several conservation projects around the world, the flagship project being in Congo and Gabon.
It is where the foundation protects and manages one million acres of land known as the Batéké Plateau, which spans both countries.
Mr Ridges said: "The area that the Aspinal Foundation protects in Congo and Gabon used to have gorillas in it, but they were hunted out many years ago.
"We are basically recolonising those areas with gorillas that have been rescued out in the country of origin and other youngsters we've bred in captivity.
"We're not just going to dump them into the wild. They will be introduced onto an island off of Gabon, where they will be treated like they have been in captivity."
DHL's Boeing 767 on the runway, ready to deliver the gorillas to the wild
He added: "While there they will be able to eat indigenous plants and just get used to the strange surroundings.
"We'll monitor them there and give them supplementary drinks and food. It's just a habitual stage for them.
"We're saying they could be held there for three to four months, but it could be less. It just depends on how they get on."
Video: Western Lowland gorillas prepare for their journey from Port Lympne
The gorillas left Kent yesterday for Brussels before catching a plane to Lagos and then onto a smaller plane to Franceville, in Gabon.
Once there they will take a helicopter to an island off Gabon before they are released back into the wild.
The gorilla family group at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park. Picture: Dave Rolfe
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