Kwibi’s Cousin: Damian Aspinall

By Diane Small

‘If I had my way, I’d close down 90  per cent of all zoos tomorrow.’ This is the bold statement made by Damian Aspinall, passionate conservationist and son of the late charismatic zookeeper and society gambling club host Johnny Aspinall.


Born into a wealthy British family, Damian was raised rather unconventionally. Sure, he grew up in a mansion in Kent and attended an elite private school, but his father’s somewhat eccentric character could be said to have made him the unique man he is today. From infancy, he played with wild animals as much as he did with children; in fact, his father controversially placed him in a gorilla enclosure, where Damian was coddled and cooed over by the hairy primates. Damian says today his connection with gorillas is so close that he feels they are like ‘aunts, uncles and cousins’ to him.


Aspinall’s father also refused to give him a penny of his fortune, preferring to force his son to make his own way in the world. Consequently,  Damian acquired his own wealth in real estate, and also revived his family’s casinos. What we love him for the most, though, is his dedication to the  John Aspinall Foundation, the wildlife conservation body dedicated to breeding endangered species and returning them to the wild.  This is in line with Aspinall’s  deep-seated hatred for zoos, which he feels are little more than jails for innocent animals.

To date, the foundation has released around 50 gorillas to secure areas in Africa.    Unfortunately, several have been found dead, possibly due to having become used  to humans and unable to care for themselves in the wild. Many critics, such as the  president of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund, have argued that while Aspinall’s goals are noble, more research on how and whether to release animals into the wild needs to be done before more meet a tragic fate.

There are some success stories, though: Kwibi, a male gorilla released in Gabon when he was 5 years old, was born and raised by Aspinall and his staff at  Howletts, a wild animal park in Kent. After Kwibi’s release, Aspinall missed him terribly and tracked him down to see how he was doing. The result is astonishing, and the video, shown here, has amazed millions around the world.

Whilst Aspinall acknowledges raising animals and releasing them can be risky, he  is far more concerned about the harm being done to captive animals. He angrily stated to the Daily Mail that most animals in zoos are housed in cages designed to maximise human’s viewing pleasure rather than mimic the animals’ natural habitats. They are also fed cheap, convenient, pellets rather than the fresh fruit and vegetation they would eat in the wild.

He  even admits his own foundation’s parks are ‘prisons’ of a sort, but he justifies their existence by stating their ultimate goal is to return the animals to their  homelands. And in the meantime, no expense is spared to improve the quality of their lives, and  he points out that  the survival rates among the animals the foundation has released in  Africa are remarkably good: over 80 per cent of the gorillas still alive and flourishing, and

No matter the problems and controversies that may come with his wildlife releasing programs, Damian is undoubtedly a true lover of animals, with a deep, honest concern for the well-being of endangered species. Ultimately, he says any risks are worth taking, and importantly, he knows in his heart that  what we he and his foundation are doing is right

Diane Small

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