Last one standing: India's oldest chimpanzee could do with some friends

rita-aayush (FILE) Rita at Delhi's National Zoological Park | Aayush Goel

"Oh wait, is she crying?" the photographer almost gives out of squeal of surprise. Just seconds ago, 58-year-old Rita was a picture of conviviality. Grinning from ear to ear, generously baring her yellowing white teeth and pink gums, the chimpanzee seemed like she was eager to shake hands with her new visitors. Sitting behind an iron cage at Delhi's National Zoological Park, Rita is suddenly quiet, one of her translucent grey eyes watering.

Was the earlier greeting a "fear grin", an expression of submissive wariness in front of complete strangers? Or was she thankful for new faces? Her caretaker Vinod is the only human she sees daily, after all. And the ageing ape hardly ventures out of her white-and-grey housing complex into the green expanse outside, a thickly wooded enclosure, over 2,000 square metres wide, encompassing a shallow moat and a hillock studded with a decaying Mughal-era monument.

Vinod, who has known Rita for the last one and a half years, says we have caught her in a good mood today. He playfully calls out her name, pats her cheek and quickly administers dexorange syrup, an oral supplement for iron deficiency. Vijay does not think Rita has suddenly switched from warm and friendly to distant and forlorn. "It's just a chemical or allergic reaction in the eye," he assures before shutting off the iron gates to let her nap before coming back to serve lunch. Five'o clock everyday is the last he sees of Rita, leaving behind three jugs of water in her cage with the lights, fans and cooler on. No one really knows how she spends her time once the shutters come down. She is the last survivor in her house, bereft of company.

Rita is special. She is the oldest chimpanzee in India now. Some say she is probably the oldest in Asia too. Chimpanzees in captivity generally live longer (between 50 to 60 years) than those in the wild (up to 40 years). Rita's hermit-like presence in the precincts evokes smiles, praise and some version of protective concern. She is obedient and non-fussy and has seen a lot, her caregivers say. Her 2017 birthday was celebrated for the first time with much fanfare. Thanks to Rita, the Delhi zoo—recently embroiled in a controversy over under-reporting of animal deaths—found a place in the Limca Book of Records on March 14 for housing India's oldest chimpanzee. For Rita, though, it is hardly an enviable honour.

A chimpanzee, by disposition, is highly social, much more than a gorilla and orangutan. Even the information plaque outside Rita's enclosure reads, "Chimpanzees are social and intelligent primates living in groups of 15-20." But Rita has been trudging a long and lonely road with quiet grace.

Rita came to Delhi on February 27, 1964 from an Amsterdam zoo as a four-year-old. No one knows the details of her biological parents, record-keeping was not quite thorough back then. Soon, she found three young companions in 1971. But by 1974, she had already seen one of them die and one more sent to a zoo in Kerala. London zoological society gifted two chimps in 1974. One of them was Max. A robust adult male, Max would turn out to be Rita's one true mate. She had four children with Max, from 1977 through 1981. All four died almost within days of being born.

No cause was mentioned for the first death. In the second, the mother would not let go of her newborn child or let anyone come near to inspect. Only the decomposed body of the child could be recovered. Born December 16, 1978; Dead December 28, 1978, the records say. "Carcass decomposed as mother did not give after death of the second child.” The third one, which died of ulcerative colitis, survived the longest: eight months. The fourth one died in three days due to hemorrhagic enteritis. Soon, perhaps on doctor's recommendation, Max was dispatched to the Jaipur zoo for another male named Gogo. But Rita and Gogo could never really hit it off. The mid-1980s would see two more chimps from Japan, three-year-old Ruby and four-year-old Rustom, come to Delhi.

By 1990, Rita and Gogo are packed off to Chhatbir zoo in Punjab for lack of any chimpanzees there. Gogo dies in Punjab.

Meanwhile, Ruby and Rustom in Delhi never had children in Delhi. Rustom was your typical alpha male, very domineering and aggressive. He would sometimes throw stones at visitors, and zoo authorities had to install an extra layer of protection around his enclosure. When two more male chimps—Morris and Monny—were brought in from Germany, Rustom would beat them up, too. Thankfully for Ruby, Monny and Morris, Rustom was exchanged for Rita from the Punjab zoo in 2006. Rita was back to homeground with three compatible friends for company. An old hand at the Delhi zoo says Rita was the happiest when Monny and Morris were around. She took great care of them like they were her own children. 

But when Monny died in 2014 due to tuberculosis, Rita did not eat for four days. She practically stopped coming out of her cage and became a recluse. 

Our closest evolutionary cousins, chimps are supposed to share an almost 99 per cent DNA match with humans. Frans De Waal, famous Dutch primatologist and author of books like Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy and Our Inner Ape, has sought to prove that morality in humans would not have been possible without the "emotional building blocks" seen amongst chimpanzees. English primatologist Jane Goodall has even proposed that chimpanzees are spiritually inclined. Subhankar Chakraborty, former biologist at the National Institute of Advance Studies in Bengaluru, says, " If a social animal has been separated or kept under solitary confinement, then it induces a tremendous amount of social and psychological stress on them on a daily basis. And therefore, they start to self-deteriorate."  The assistant veterinary officer at the zoo, Dr Vikas Kumar, says Rita has no illness even at this age, "She is just dull and weak due to old age". 

Vinod says Rita, unlike Rustom and Max, never acquired any bad habits. He found Rustom to be the most complicated of the lot. Much more than Max who would smoke, he says, and throw faeces and stones when he perceived threat. "Rita obediently drinks her milk and returns the empty jug when I ask her for it. She even hands me her blanket for cleaning during the winters," Vinod fondly attests to Rita's good conduct. But she stays inside her cage, unseen by the curious visitors. She may come out, says Vinod, if it rains in the morning.