In the summer of 2017, Damian Aspinall and his wife, Victoria, took the trip of a lifetime. As the chairman of the Aspinall Foundation — a group that protects the habitats of gorillas — he was excited to introduce his wife to two of the gorillas he had helped rescue and transfer more than a decade ago.
Damian had been an integral part of the team that worked to rescue and transport two male gorillas, Djalta and Ima, to a new home. Having spent lots of time with the animals, Damian formed a special bond with them. But it had been nearly 14 years since Damian had seen the animals, and he was unsure how the strong animals would react to seeing him and his wife. He never expected the encounter to turn out how it did.
The Trip of a Lifetime
Gorillas are one of the most amazing species on the planet. These beautiful creatures display many human-like behaviors and emotions, likes happiness and sadness. But Gorillas face the constant danger of their habitats being destroyed. That’s why certain groups like the Aspinall Foundation work to preserve their habitats and protect the gorilla population.
Gorillas Djalta and Ima were previously living in the Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent when the Aspinall Foundation sponsored their transportation to Gabon. Here, they would be safe. During the time Damian spent working on the project, he formed a special bond with Djalta and Ima and was very curious to see how they had changed since then. So Damian, Victoria, and a small crew set off for Gabon.
Damian Was Excited to Introduce the Gorillas to Victoria, But They Were Both Nervous
Damian and Victoria were excitedly planning their trip to Gabon. The couple was especially eager to meet Djalta and Ima since the gorillas had had a major impact on Damian.
Despite the couple’s excitement, they couldn’t help but be a little nervous too. After all, it had been more than a decade since Damian last saw the gorillas, and they worried that their encounter might not play out as they were hoping it would. Putting their worries aside, they set off for the Central African country. But finding Djalta and Ima proved to be difficult.
Finding Djalta and Ima Wasn’t Easy
The trek to meet the gorillas was not easy. Not only did the couple have to travel to Gabon, which is located on the coast of central African, but they had to traverse tough landscapes to reach Djalta and Ima.
Damian and Victoria were required to travel down the Niari River for hours just to reach the gorillas’ new home. Even though Djalta and Ima were looked after over the years, they still needed lots of help from the foundation staff to help track the two down. In order to find Djalta and Ima, the couple got creative.
They Tracked Down Djalta and Ima With a Drone
Even though Djalta and Ima wore trackers, the devices didn’t pinpoint the exact location of the animals and finding them proved to be a challenge. Luckily, Damian and Victoria had anticipated this and were prepared to bring in a little extra help.
The couple used a drone (which they connect to Damian’s phone) to fly over the area of the Niari River. This way, they were able to get a birds-eye view of the land and located Djalta and Ima. Using a drone may have worked, but when Djalta and Ima spotted the device, they weren’t sure how to feel about it…
Djalta and Ima Spot the Drone
Soon enough, Damian and Victoria spotted the gorillas with the help of their drone. Not surprisingly, Djalta and Ima were confused about the flying object, although they didn’t seem angry or aggressive. Growing more curious about the drone, Djalta and Ima crept from behind a large bush and stood at the edge of the riverbank.
The time to meet the gorillas was quickly approaching. As Damian and Victoria neared closer to the gorillas, Djalta and Ima noticed the couple had a camera crew with them. They were even more intrigued now. It was now time to approach Djalta and Ima.
Approaching Djalta and Ima
As they neared closer to the shore, Damian and Victoria safely returned the drone to their boat. The team prepared to approach the gorillas, very slowly. Although Djalta and Ima seemed to be very calm, they all kept in mind that gorillas’ behavior can be unpredictable.
Considering gorillas are so powerful, the team knew they couldn’t be cautious enough with their approach. Excitement and nervousness rushed over everyone and they continued to inch closer to the shore toward the gorillas. Damian was the first of the crew to approach the animals.
Damian Approaches Djalta and Ima
Damian was beyond excited to be reunited with Djalta and Ima again and could hardly contain himself as he slowly exited the small boat. He stepped into the waist-deep water and began to wade towards the gorillas until he was on the shore.
Being the first of the crew members to approach the gorillas, he knew he had to pay extra attention to his actions. Damian made sure to stay at their level and not appear intimidating. He took cues for Djalta and Ima’s body language before getting any closer. Up next, Damian makes contact with Djalta and Ima for the first time in 14 years — but would they remember him?
Djalta and Ima Get Comfortable With Damian
Damian took his time approaching Djalta and Ima, doing his very best to ensure they wouldn’t be threatened by him at all. After spending a fair amount of time on the shore with the gorillas, they started making little noises.
Damian knew these noises were friendly ones that ultimately signaled that they were comfortable with his presence. He continued to talk to Djalta and Ima for a few minutes and was thrilled they remembered him after all this time. He knew is was time to introduce the gorillas to Victoria.
Djalta and Ima Were Wary of Victoria
The gorillas didn’t take to Damian right away, which wasn’t all that surprising. After all, he hadn’t seen Djalta and Ima for more than 10 years. Still, the gorillas recognized him and were starting to warm up. They were, however, noticeably wary of Victoria.
As Victoria inched close to Djalta and Ima, the couple could sense how apprehensive the gorillas were toward her. She knew she needed to move towards them extremely slowly or she could risk making herself seem like a threat. She took her time approaching the shore.
Victoria Waded Next To the Shore Waiting for Approval
After Victoria spent a few minutes wading towards the gorillas slowly, they seemed to let their guard down slightly. Taking cues from Djalta and Ima’s body language, she gradually crawled onto the shore after Damian signaled that he thought it would be okay.
“I was looking for a sign that they were not going to be hostile or aggressive,” Damian said on camera during the encounter. Soon, Djalta started letting out deep gurgles, which sound intimidating but are actually a sign of friendliness. It was time to come face to face with the animals.
Victoria Gradually Crawled onto the Shore
The entire time she was approaching Djalta and Ima, Victoria couldn’t help but feel slightly afraid of these powerful animals. She focused on not making any sudden movements that might startle Djalta and Ima. Things were tense, but she and Damian were still filled with excitement.
After Djalta let out more friendly gurgles, Damian asked the gorilla if he would like to meet Victoria. This was her cue. She slowly crawled on shore and sat next to Damian as the gorillas approached her.
The Gorillas Walked Towards Victoria
Finally, Victoria was fully on land and situated next to her husband. At this point, Djalta and Ima couldn’t hold back their feelings any longer. Whether they were ready or not, the gorillas quickly approached the couple and began to examine Victoria.
Almost without warning, Djalta and Ima walked towards Victoria. Victoria immediately felt full of fear, but what happened next, surprised everyone.
Djalta and Ima Weren’t Aggressive, They Were Gentle
Although Djalta and Ima moved towards Victoria quickly, it was soon apparent their behavior was nowhere near aggressive. Instead, the gorillas leaned into Victoria affectionately. It was as if their memory of Damian suddenly came rushing back and they knew that Victoria must have been special to their old friend.
Victoria wasn’t sure what she was in for when she was initially approaching the gorillas. And while she had prayed they would take to her kindly, she never anticipated she would be met with such a warm welcome.
Djalta and Ima Treated Victoria Like One of Their Own
Djalta and Ima quickly realized how comfortable Victoria was with them so they wasted no time making her feel like she was part of their community. Djalta and Ima even treated Victoria like she was one of their own children by pulling her gently into their laps.
The couple and the rest of the team were absolutely floored by the event. Not only had the two gorillas remembered Damian after 14 years, but they realized how special Victoria was to him and treated her as such. The animals’ bond with Victoria was special and everyone knew it.
Victoria’s Bond With the Gorillas Was Apparent
Before venturing on this trip with Damian, Victoria was nervous Djalta and Ima wouldn’t be welcoming to her. Worse, she thought they might even be aggressive. Djalta and Ima’s warm welcome was deeply touching to the couple and meant everything to them.
Not only did Djalta and Ima have a special bond with Damian — now, the two gorillas had their own special bond with Victoria. They couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.
A Dream Come True for Damian
Like his wife, Damian was elated that Djalta and Ima had been so accepting of Victoria. Not only was he able to locate the gorillas after more than a decade apart, but he was able to introduce the love of his life to the animals who loved her back. For Damian, it was a dream come true.
The experience was also a dream come true for Victoria. Although she had been excited for the trip all along, she never knew just how special it would turn out to be. As the couple spent more time with the animals, their unique bond only deepened.
Djalta and Ima Were Obsessed With Victoria’s Hat
As the couple spent more time with Djalta and Ima, they got even more comfortable together. Soon, the gorillas became more playful with Damian and Victoria.
Djalta and Ima even took turns grabbing Victoria’s hat from her head and putting it on their own and twirling it around. Moments like this reminded the couple just how lucky they were to be able to experience something so incredible together.
Their Trip Was a Reminder Of How Special These Animals Are
Watching Djalta and Ima interact just goes to show the true nature of these incredible animals. While many perceive them as unintelligent and dangerous, this is so far from the truth.
“Watching Ima and Victoria was something incredibly beautiful,” Damian said. “These beautiful animals, so noble, so gentle, just shows one must never underestimate how extraordinarily beautiful these gorillas are.” See the additional efforts The Aspinall Foundation is making to save gorillas and what you can do to help, next.
More Efforts Made By The Aspinall Foundation
Over the last 25 years, the number of Western lowland gorillas has decreased by an astounding 60 percent. It’s shocking numbers like this that inspired Damian and the rest of the Aspinall Foundation to do something about it.
The Aspinall Foundation was founded by Damian’s father, John, who dreamt of reintroducing gorillas bred at Howletts and Port Lympne back into the wild. Today, Damian carries on his father’s dream and the foundation is now internationally renowned for its animal conservation efforts and charitable work.
You Can Make a Difference
There are lots of ways you can help the Aspinall Foundation carry out their mission to help animals live in their natural environments, free of manmade dangers.
The Aspinall Foundation works with Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks in Kent, where visitors can come and view these amazing animals up close. All of the proceeds go directly to helping the animals. In addition to visiting the park, you can donate, adopt an animal, or take part in a fundraising event.
Meet Werner Freund
In 1972, former German paratrooper Werner Freund “The Wolfman” established the Wolfspark Werner Freund wolf sanctuary in Merzig, Germany. It is home to 29 wolves from six different packs from areas such as Europe, Siberia, Canada, the Arctic, and Mongolia.
Since the sanctuary opened, Werner has helped raise more than 70 animals ranging from wolves to bear cubs. He usually rears these animals by his own hand and lived so closely with the wolves that he achieved the title of the alpha male.
He Loved Animals As A Kid
Freund was born in 1933, the same month that Hitler came into power. H was raised in the German countryside in a family made up of foresters and shepherds. He credits his love for animals from his mother.
He said that “To her all animals were good and so I never had any fear of them. She never told me stories about the big bad wolf.” Something that would stick with him and eventually take over his entire life.
Finding His Love For Large Predators
In the 1950s, Freund began training as a gardener. However, his passion for animals led him to become a keeper for the larger predators at the zoo in Stuttgart. Although he handled animals such as bears, lions, hyenas, and pumas, he truly fell in love with the wolf.
However, his time with the animals was put on pause when he joined the new Bundeswehr army in West Germany, where he spent the next 20 years as a career soldier and paratrooper.
Marrying A Woman With Similar Passions
In 1962, Freund married Erika, also known as “Mrs. Wolfman.” She too shared his same ideas about wildlife preservation along with a deep love for wolves. They acquired their first set of wolves in the 1970s, who were cubs from zoos and animal parks.
The couple raised the wolves together which essentially turned them into the parents of the pack, whom the wolves looked up to and respected. This taught Freund that you could fit in and become one with the pack by becoming a wolf himself.
Establishing The Sanctuary
In the early 1970s, a younger Werner Freud had the idea to establish a wolf sanctuary in the city of Merzig. So, he marched into the mayor’s office with not much except his knowledge and charisma and proposed his plan.
His idea was simple. To create a wolf park that would be free for visitors and doubles as a place where wolves can live in a free and open area like nature intended.
Help From The City
Believe it or not, Freund’s pitched worked and he sold the mayor on his idea. He was given land by the local authorities and the sanctuary was established. Today, Freund’s sanctuary is one of Merzig’s biggest attractions.
The various packs living in the park are free to roam in their own segregated enclaves that are located in a massive forest area. Maintaining the enclosure has become a city-wide effort with meat donated from local slaughterhouses or from hunters.
Helping The Wolves
The purpose of Freund’s sanctuary was to prove to people that wolves have become extremely misunderstood animals. The media and stories have portrayed them as bloodthirsty beasts that are a threat to both livestock and humans.
Although they are dangerous and should be respected, Freund made it his goal to show that they aren’t what we have made them out to be and how they should be respected and protected.
They Keep To Themselves
According to Freund, wolves like to keep to themselves. He notes that “There will always be farm animals taken by them. There will always be ‘incidents’ because of their proximity to man. But truthfully? You are more likely to die from meeting a werewolf than a real one. They don’t want to know about humans. They want to do their own thing.”
He goes on to add that because wolf attacks are so rare is why they’re blown out of proportion by the media.
You can’t just walk into a wolf sanctuary and expect to hang around a pack of wolves like Freund has done. It was a slow process and it wasn’t so much about him getting used to the wolves as it was the wolves getting used to him.
This means he had to learn to fit in. He would wear an old parachute smock that was covered in animal fat and blood in order to give him the scent of a fellow wolf and not an ordinary human.
Becoming Alpha Male
Establishing yourself as the alpha male in any wolf pack is an incredibly daunting task, especially if you’re a human. However, Freund wasn’t phased and managed to become accepted earn the respect of the other wolves.
In order to maintain his position, he had the behave like any other alpha male of a pack would. This means eating first, showing aggression, and essentially becoming a wolf.
There’s Still A Lot Of Risks
Although Freund has managed to be accepted into the pack and even holds the position of the alpha male, it doesn’t mean he can let his guard down. He mentions to “never be entirely fooled into thinking these are just big dogs. They are wild animals and always will be.”
He has to always be wary of the wolf that is directly below him in the hierarchy and for changes in pack positions. He also doesn’t get involved in the pack’s internal squabbles lets them handle things their way.
Freund’s Work Is Revered By Many
When tales of Freund’s position as the alpha male of a wolf pack reached the public, researches and animal experts were desperate to talk with him. Even the “horse whisperer” Monty Roberts paid him a visit to learn about Freund’s techniques and experiences while living amongst wolves.
His work eventually caught the attention of the EU who looked to him for advice on wolf management. His work had continued to be admired by many who have written books and films about his second life as a wolf.
The Wolfman Passes Away
Unfortunately, Werner Freund passed away in 2014 from an undisclosed illness. However, his work with wolves and other aspects of wildlife preservation are remembered and admired by others. Tales of his experiences among the wolves are still discussed today and have helped to break down the negative stereotypes surrounding wolves.
He did something that few people have ever accomplished or been brave enough to try. He’s made a major impact on the view of wolves around the world and his legacy lives on the wolves that he once led.