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Damian Aspinall's heartbreak as five gorillas raised at Howletts in Bekesbourne near Canterbury and Port Lympne in Hythe are found dead in the wild

A zookeeper has spoken of his devastation after five gorillas he raised at his Kent wildlife parks were found dead in the wild.

Damian Aspinall, who owns Howletts near Canterbury and Port Lympne in Hythe, released the family of 11 western lowland gorillas onto an island in West Africa earlier this year.

The project made Mr Aspinall the world's first conservationist to reintroduce an entire family of primates into their natural habitat.

Conservationist Damian Aspinall with gorillas in Gabon in 2010
Conservationist Damian Aspinall with gorillas in Gabon in 2010

But he has now been left "devastated" after the lifeless bodies of four adults and one baby gorilla were found on the Gabon reserve.

It is thought they were mauled by an adult male gorilla, but others have suggested poachers or saboteurs could have been to blame.

The bloodbath has wiped out almost half of the family of 11, which is headed by 30-year-old Djala.

Djala, Mbwambe and Louna on Gorilla Island. Picture: Damian Aspinall
Djala, Mbwambe and Louna on Gorilla Island. Picture: Damian Aspinall

The victims include four of his "wives" - Tamki, 25, Kishi, 16, Mumba, 27 and Kibi, 22 - and one of his five offspring, a three-year-old called Akou.

Djala remains on the island with Mbwambe, Djongo and Louna. All four are being closely monitored by a team from Mr Aspinall's charity, the Aspinall Foundation.

The tragedy is thought to be a professional as well as a personal blow for Mr Aspinall, who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds and several years planning the controversial experiment.

Djala on Gorilla Island before the deaths. Picture: Damian Aspinall
Djala on Gorilla Island before the deaths. Picture: Damian Aspinall

Reflecting on a recent trip to the affectionately-named "Gorilla Island" when it seemed to have been working, he told MailOnline: "Because of his upbringing, Djala had always been very nervous in captivity, but out there he seemed remarkably calm.

"He had even stopped his lifelong habit of plucking at the hair on his arm. So I left the country thinking it was an outstanding success. Obviously, I couldn’t foresee the tragedy to come."

The deaths were relayed to Mr Aspinall in bursts. First, he heard that two adult female gorillas had gone missing.

Djala at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park. Picture: Dave Rolfe
Djala at Port Lympne Wild Animal Park. Picture: Dave Rolfe

Their decomposing bodies were found a couple of days later, with injuries to their heads and bodies - the hallmarks of a brutal attack by another gorilla.

Three more were found dead in the days that followed, and one remains missing.

A blog post on the Aspinall Foundation's website says: "Thank you all for your concern about the gorillas on Gorilla Island. We were all obviously devastated by the tragic news.

"Moving forward, we have to focus on the positive. Djala, Mbwambe, Djongo and Louna are all safe and well on the island and our dedicated team are monitoring them closely every day.

"We are carefully assessing the situation to enable us to make suitable plans for the future, as the welfare of the gorillas is, and always has been our top priority."

The Aspinall Foundation, which was set up by Damian's father John in 1984, has returned a total of 80 gorillas to the wild - but this was the first attempt to release an entire family.

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