Naturally, we want to introduce our spouses to our families, and Damian felt he needed to introduce his new wife to the two gorillas and set out on a long and difficult journey to find them. As you might imagine, it was no ordinary trip! Read on to discover all the twists and turns that accompanied Damian and Victoria as they journeyed to reunite with Damian’s two wonderful primate family members.
Growing Up With Animals
Damian’s love of animals comes from his father, John Aspinall, who founded Howletts Wild Animal Park back in 1957. Damian grew up on the land with the animals, so he was acclimated to exotic, wild animals at a very young age. Located in Kent, England, the Howletts is made up of 700 acres.
Not only is this land Damian’s birthplace, but a wonderful and fantastic array of animals call this large estate home as well! Since Damian grew up and was exposed to wild animals at such a young age, he grew to love them and eventually had his sights set on becoming a conservationist.
Amazingly, Damian grew so connected to the animals on the Howletts estate that he developed familial connections with some of them. One gorilla in particular acted in a maternal fashion with Damian. He recants tales of this motherly gorilla hoisting him onto her back when he was stuck in a tree as a small child.
Not only did this gorilla rescue young Damian and bring him safely down to ground level, but she comforted him in his time of need. How incredible is that? It reminds us of the scene in the movie "Tarzan" when the orphaned child is taken in by the nearby gorillas.
A Lineage of Animal Protection
Damian’s father, John, set up the Aspinall Foundation to protect wildlife shortly before he founded Howletts Wild Animal Park. All donations and proceeds connected to the foundation are used to promote the conservation of wildlife habitats across the globe and to save endangered animals by returning them to the wild.
Additionally, the organization has founded two zoos, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and of course, Howletts Wild Animal Park. Both wildlife parks are located in Kent and are used to provide a safe habitat for wild animals in need while also providing much-needed education about nature conservation for the people who visit the parks.
Port Lympne and Howletts are both locations where rare and endangered animals are bred, including animals like gorillas and tigers. Additionally, the Aspinall Foundation has a special project for gorillas in which they work to reintroduce bred and orphaned gorillas back into the wild. The rehabilitated gorillas are released at Plateau Bateke National Park in Gabon, Africa.
After Damian’s father passed away, it became his responsibility to take over the Aspinall Foundation. Having been raised with animals since he was a child, Damian was not only up to the task, but he was excited to implement new plans — plans he had been dreaming about from a very young age.
Damian had a strong and personal connection to animals partly because he spent more time with the animals at Howletts than he did with humans. Friends were rarely allowed to come to play with Damian because their parents were afraid of the “dangerous” animals they might encounter on his property.
Partly for that reason, Damian grew closer to his animal friends than he did to his human ones as a child. They were after all, in close proximity to him, and having grown up with them, he wasn't afraid of them. Despite them being wild animals, Damian grew to love them.
First-Hand From Damian
“You don’t get playdates when you’ve got tigers in the garden. The odd mate came, but otherwise it was just me and the animals. To be perfectly honest, I’ve always felt disconnected from humans who inevitably let you down. Animals never do. There’s more of an honesty and purity there.”
Damian made these comments to the Daily Mail and revealed his strong and personal connection to the animals he grew up with in his interview with them. Damian Aspinall has previously said all he wants is for all the wild animals in his care to eventually be released back into the wild.
Tigers, Bison, and Wolves, Oh My!
Despite his potential alienation from his human friends due to his peculiar boyhood home, Damian comments that he had, “an extraordinarily blessed childhood.” He continues, “We’ve got Super 8 films from the 60s of me as a seven-year-old, playing with tigers and bison around a tree or tearing around the lawns with a gang of wolves.”
It’s hard to imagine having tigers, bison, and wolves as playmates, never mind so many wild animals living so close by! But it must have been an incredible experience for a child — and what a great thing to capture on film! His father initially established Howletts as a private zoo before opening it to the public in 1975.
Not Always Friendly
Living so close to animals sounds wonderful in theory, but not every interaction in the wildlife facility was pleasant for Damian. He recalls one specific time when he and a few of the animals were chased by a large swarm of angry wasps after accidentally coming too close and disturbing a nest.
Playing outside and being at the mercy of all creatures, both great and small, is not for the faint of heart. To escape their wrath, the animals and Damian had to quickly race away from the wasps and dive into a nearby pond to escape their stings. Luckily, they escaped mostly unscathed.
Despite his father's wealth, he refused to help Damian financially. So while it wasn’t his passion, he eventually made his fortune through real estate. After Damian’s father passed, there was no money left over for his son but despite having to make it on his own, Damian has had much success and is a millionaire today.
After the death of his father, he took over the John Aspinall Foundation, and his stated goal is to breed gorillas in hopes of returning them to the wild and repopulating their numbers. The gorillas are critically endangered due to poaching, habitat loss, and diseases like Ebola, which are often transmitted from humans.
No Money in the Bank
In regards to the estate Damian’s father left to him upon his death Damian comments, “You have to understand that when he died, there was no money left in the bank and these parks were losing £4m a year. So now we have to find £10m a year,” Damian said.
“I can see why the other family members didn’t want to be involved. My brother and sister had no interest in animals, but I was compelled to do it.” More of a labor of love than anything, Damian was able to revitalize the parks that his father left behind with lots of hard work and a passionate drive to make the parks succeed.
Throughout his childhood, Damian had the unique opportunity to raise multiple baby gorillas from birth. Throughout these experiences, Damian would develop strong bonds with the baby gorillas, even considering them to be children of his own. Two gorillas that Damian grew especially fond of were baby males, named Djalta and Ima.
These two gorillas are among many who were raised in captivity with the hopes of sending them safely back to their native homelands. During his interview with the Daily Mail, Damian commented on Djalta and Ima, saying that they were both planned to be moved back into the wild in a protected habitat.
The Beginning of a Lifelong Bond
Growing up so close to animals, Damian maintained a lifelong belief that every animal deserves happiness and a real chance for survival in the wild. He knew saving gorillas would help give them the opportunity for a happy and healthy life — the same opportunity he believes every human has a right to.
Damian also believes this shared right is the key to humanity’s coexistence with wildlife. Somehow he always wanted to make a difference and initially just wanted to rescue a few gorillas and return them back to the wild. However, little did Damian know, his relationship with Djalta and Ima was only beginning.
After a wonderful courtship, Victoria Fisher married Damian Aspinall in August 2016. She joked that Damian came in a two-in-one package — you couldn’t fall in love with him without falling in love with his animals! Upon getting married in Italy she felt as if she had also married Damian’s passion for animals.
The passion was a part of who Damian was at his core, after all! But marrying Damian, as affluent and magnetic as he is, is not without its issues and comes with the sort of media glare that demands a thick skin. Victoria has said that that’s what she signed up for and she has to ignore it.
A Chance Meeting
At a mutual friend’s dinner party, Damian and Victoria just happened to meet and hit it off. She agreed to go on a lunch date with him but had no idea of his background or his unique passion for animals. Throughout the date, Damian regaled Victoria with numerous stories regarding Howletts.
Damian is 27 years her senior and has previously been married, but Victoria was curious about him, his interest in wildlife, and his efforts in conservation. She Googled Damian when she got home and was shocked that it all existed. Little did she know, Howlett's wild park would soon become a major part of Victoria’s life, too.
Regarding her early days with Damian Victoria comments that she wouldn’t naturally go for someone that much older than her and didn’t think anyone would have put them together on paper. She thinks Damian would say the same thing— neither of them was looking for the other. But sometimes, fate has a way.
It quickly became apparent, however, that the age gap was not going to be a problem. The two certainly weren’t an obvious pair, a fact that became evident when Damian first introduced Victoria to his primate extended family. Soon enough, they bonded during weekend trips to Howletts, where Victoria was quickly enamored by the animals.
The Search for Old Friends
Throughout the process of raising them, Damian developed an especially strong bond with the two male gorillas, Djalta and Ima. He helped raise them and so naturally, he wanted to introduce them to Victoria after the couple was married. Within a few months, they were off on a trip to Gabon.
It had been over a decade since Damian had been face-to-face with the two gorillas after the two were reintroduced into the wild at the park in Gabon. He was excited to relocate his old friends and see how they were doing in the wild habitat they had been introduced to.
Butterflies in His Stomach
Despite his fond memories of Djalta and Ima, Damian felt nervous about reuniting with them. They had developed what felt like a strong and lasting relationship while he was raising the two gorillas at Howletts, but he felt a sense of unease nonetheless as the last time they saw him was years ago.
What if Djalta and Ima did not remember him? What if they wanted nothing to do with him once he found them? What if he could not find them at all? They had been living in the wild for a few years already and there was no way he could know how they would react.
Though he had initial feelings of trepidation, Damian was fairly certain Djalta and Ima would at least recognize him, though he wasn’t sure how they would react to him otherwise. However, when it came to Victoria meeting the two gorillas it was a completely different story. She was a complete stranger and full-grown male gorillas could be somewhat unpredictable.
They are large, strong, and can be territorial, so anticipating how they would react when Damian and Victoria approached them in the wild was extremely difficult. Damian had to push his valid concerns aside momentarily, as he was getting ahead of himself. He had not yet even located his old friends in the vast, African wildlife reserve!
Trip to Gabon
As Damian and Victoria boarded the plane to Gabon, his feelings of excitement rushed back to him. Fond memories of his old friends, Djalta and Ima, came to him in waves. He couldn’t wait to see them again. At the same time, he had Victoria along with him and he couldn’t help but feel nervous for her.
To be sure that everything would be safe for Victoria, the couple took along a team of experts which helped to quell some anxieties, but there still remained a tension in the air. This was still a risky endeavor, and it was nevertheless unclear how successful their expedition would be.
The Search Begins
Damian and Victoria knew they had to let go of their fears and accept whatever the future had in store for them regarding their meeting with the gorillas. One of them very well could get hurt, especially Victoria, but they could not come all this way and not at least try to find the two gorillas.
If they let fear take control, they would never have the amazing opportunity to potentially forge a relationship with these two gorillas. Damian wanted to reconnect with them, but he also wanted Victoria to meet them. The journey to find the gorillas would be long and difficult, but they were up to the task.
Miles to Go
It felt like Victoria and Damian had already traveled quite a bit as they exited the airplane that had taken them from the U.K. all the way to Gabon, but this was only the beginning of their journey. Now they had to trek through the rainforest, which is no easy feat.
They had a team of experts with them and while they had a general idea of where the gorillas were located, the reserve where Djalta and Ima were released was huge. Ultimately, Victoria and Damian did not have much to go on when it came to finding the two gorillas.
Planes, Boats, and Automobiles
Damian and Victoria still had a long way to go if they were going to have any luck finding Djalta and Ima. They had to hike by foot along very difficult and treacherous trails, then take a long boat ride down the Mpassa River, which is filled with crocodiles.
After that, they had to head into the jungle within the reserve where Djalta and Ima were located. Fortunately, there were GPS locators attached to the two gorillas. But as luck would have it, these locators only gave a general location, so it would still take some hard work to actually find them.
Though Djalta and Ima had some contact with humans throughout the years on the reserve, they still had a large amount of land to roam on and it would be very difficult to pinpoint their exact location. But finding the two gorillas was the least of Damian and his team's problems.
Damian anticipated the moment when he would reunite with Djalta and Ima and knew he would have to approach them very slowly so he would not scare or startle them. Especially because he was bringing his wife along with him and the gorillas had never seen her before — who knows how they would react?
The team searched tirelessly for hours upon hours in the dense, hot jungle on the preserve in Gabon. They were becoming exhausted and losing all hope of finding Djalta and Ima that day. However, they knew that the search was going to be hard ahead of time, and had prepared themselves for such a situation.
After hours of searching through the forest, they knew they had to do something. Otherwise, they would have wasted all the time and money on this trip without seeing the gorillas. Luckily, they decided to get some extra technological help and managed to get a hold of a drone with a camera.
State of the Art
Though the GPS locators on Djalta and Ima gave the team a general location of the gorillas’ whereabouts, they had no idea where exactly the two resided and with the forest being so dense, it was all the more difficult. The team then used some state-of-the-art drones to help solve their current problem and better find the two gorillas.
The drones were able to be linked up to Damian’s smartphone, so he could send them up into the air, then see if he could spot Djalata and Ima amidst the landscape from a bird’s eye perspective. Miraculously, the approach worked and the team was soon en route to the two gorillas.
The Tranquil Location
Fortuitously, Djalta and Ima were hanging out near a river bank. This was a calm location that contained minimal stressors for the gorillas — a perfect place for a reunion. The team approached the two very slowly by boat in the river, making sure not to startle or sneak up on them.
When they were in full view of Djalta and Ima, the two showed no signs of aggression or aggravation. If anything, they seemed curious and were definitely aware of the new faces. Damian could not believe his eyes when he saw Djalta and Ima. It was like gazing upon old friends — friends that had gotten much much larger and stronger!
Meeting at Last
While they looked on, Damian couldn't help but wonder if the two gorillas recognized him. While he was excited to see them, he knew he had to act calmly. His initial feelings of fear began to return. He was still unsure whether or not the two would recognize him and he had no idea of how they would react to Victoria.
So far, the first signs were good. It was a reassuring sign that Djalta and Ima seemed curious about the boat rather than aggressive, but the boat was still slowly approaching and Damian knew from spending so much time with gorillas that their attitudes could change in a split second.
Gorillas are usually not keen to interact with humans. Of course, Djalta and Ima had been raised with humans, but it had been many years since they had had direct contact with a person. They are generally shy, but if they feel threatened or provoked they can be a force to be reckoned with.
Anyone who has seen a full-grown gorilla knows how large they are and how strong they are. In fact, an adult gorilla is stronger than 20 adult humans combined as they can lift over 8oo kgs. This is all without ever training in a gym. They definitely aren’t an animal you want to make angry!
One Wrong Move
Though things were going well, it could only take one wrong move to turn a calm and peaceful situation into a disaster. Gorillas, like most wild animals, do not like to be surprised, they take acts of surprise as acts of aggression and will respond accordingly. Damian was very, very careful in this regard.
The last thing he wanted was to scare his old friends and ruin their meeting, especially with Victoria to account for! The boat drew closer and closer to Djalta and Ima. Knowing what they did about surprising gorillas, the team took every action they could to avoid overstimulating the pair.
Get Rid of the Drone
To quell any possible commotion, the team quickly yet cautiously flew the drones back and put them away, not wanting their presence to add any stress to their meeting with Djalta and Ima. The fact that they're male makes them particularly dangerous as they can cause fatal wounds with their long canine teeth.
Most people don't know that gorillas are shy and reserved towards people. They are, in fact, quite gentle and peaceful, but they will attack if they are surprised or feel threatened. If a human makes an unexpected movement, gorillas can react with a tremendous roar and come charging at a great speed.
Slow and Steady
In addition to removing the drones and any other loud devices, they made sure to move the boat at an extremely slow and steady pace. They did not want to approach the gorillas too fast, nor did they want to make any sudden movements that might upset or surprise the gorillas.
Damian knew that gorillas do not always react to humans in a predictable manner, sometimes they are fine and remain calm as we've seen in many nature documentaries, and other times they become upset. Knowing this, the team tried to control as many variables of their own as possible in order to help ensure their safety.
Would They Remember?
As it became time to exit the boat and interact with the gorillas, Damian decided he would be the first one to approach Djalta and Ima. He had raised them, after all, and he was extremely curious as to whether or not they would remember him after all these years.
Now all he had to do was approach them. It seemed like the safest way to do so was to take the plunge and meet the gorillas face-to-face. However, it had been 14 years since he had last spent time with Djalta and Ima and there was no telling what would happen next.
The Moment of Approach
The boat stopped a good distance away from where Djalta and Ima resided. Damian did not want the motor’s sound to scare the two gorillas, so he decided the best way to approach them would be to exit the boat and wade in the waist-high water toward the gorillas very, very cautiously.
He crept forward, nervously approaching the two while also trying to maintain a calm attitude. The last thing he wanted to do was scare them so he had to move slowly and maintain a downward gaze, as eye contact can be seen as an aggressive move in the animal kingdom.
Damian kept his stature low and inched nearer and nearer toward the gorillas. They seemed to be alright with his movements and did not make any signals that they felt threatened by his presence. Upon being near Damian for only a short amount of time, the gorillas began to make small, grunting noises.
Damian recognized the noises and knew that they were friendly gestures, he then mimicked the sounds to signal that he was friendly as well. He described them as something between a grunt and a gurgle. After all these years, it appeared that Djalta and Ima did in fact remember Damian!
Upon seeing how well the gorillas reacted to Damian, the team decided it would be alright for Victoria to exit the boat. At long last, Damian would finally get to introduce his friends to his wife! As Damian had, Victoria crouched low as she waded through the water toward Damian and the gorillas.
Regarding the experience Victoria commented, “I decided to gently ease my way ashore. I didn’t want to frighten them and I wanted to make sure they were relaxed.” Djalta and Ima had already taken a liking to Damian, but they were already familiar with him. With Victoria, the situation was a bit riskier.
As Victoria approached Djalta and Ima, they carefully watched her and emitted the same exact sounds they had made when Damian approached them. Victoria later said that she was incredibly nervous, but she trusted Damian’s experience with these animals and he beckoned her over, so she knew it would be safe.
This was an excellent sign and signaled to the couple that the gorillas did not see Victoria as a threat and were, in fact, welcoming her, just as they had welcomed Damian. Things were going well, and while Victoria’s nervousness began to ease, she still had to remain calm and refrain from making any sudden movements.
Though they had emitted friendly sounds, the gorillas were still cautious towards Damian and so he was still very nervous as to how they would react to Victoria. However, he remained positive and continued to beckon her to come closer, and she continued to slowly move forward toward Djalta and Ima.
What would happen next, however, was still very unclear and Damian had to be careful. Normally, gorillas are very shy so if they detect a strange animal or a person, even from a great distance, they often flee. In this case, they didn't flee which meant they weren't scared or frightened of people.
Hoping for a Warm Welcome
Victoria sat down near the edge of the river bank. Damian sat closer to Ima and Djalta, holding out hope that they would welcome Victoria to come in towards them, as they had done with him. He wanted more than anything for Victoria to be welcomed into the gorilla’s clan.
At that moment, one of the gorillas emitted a low, guttural sound. Though it was a startling sound, Damian knew that it meant something was good. They also came closer to inspect their new friends, besides communicating with sounds, gorillas also smell and touch one another to get better acquainted.
Their behavior was a signal that the gorillas were accepting Victoria and Damian could not have been more happy. His old friends were going to be friendly to his wife, which was everything he had been hoping for. As if on cue, one of the gorillas got up and went over to Victoria.
He then gave her a nuzzle with his face, the ultimate sign of acceptance among our primate relatives. Victoria mentioned that it was an incredible feeling to be accepted by an animal that could have killed her with one blow. But all they did was show affection towards her!
The day was winding down, but the gorillas continued to show Damian and Victoria lots of affection. They gave the couple warm, big hugs and lots of sweet nuzzles throughout the meeting. Gorillas usually bond by grooming each other and as a group, they often stay in close proximity to each other.
So forget about personal space, these primates are all about demonstrative affection and snuggling. But now it was getting late, so Damian and Victoria decided they needed to leave the river bank and head in for the night, but they knew they would soon be seeing Djalta and Ima again.
Having undergone the nervous process of reuniting the day before, the worst was over. Damian and Victoria could not wait to see Djalta and Ima the next day. They took the same journey and returned to the same spot near the river bank hoping to see the friendly primate pair again.
Fortune was on their side because Djalta and Ima were in the very same spot. It was almost as if they had been waiting for Damian and Victoria to return and visit again. Now that they had been better acquainted, Damian and Victoria knew they could continue bonding with the gorillas.
Ima’s Fondness of Victoria
Ima seemed to take a real liking to Victoria and right away he approached her when she came off the boat. He seemed captivated by her, jumping and making happy noises upon her arrival, he rushed over and embraced her in a hug. They then began to play around with one another.
Victoria cuddled Ima and even sat in his lap as they showed one another continuous signs of affection. Gorillas are incredibly social animals and love to be in each other's company. There's no such thing as privacy when you're in a troop. They do everything together and always remain close by.
Ima had quite a wonderful sense of curiosity when it came to Victoria. She was wearing a baseball cap and at one point, Ima removed it from her head, sniffed it, and then placed it on his own head! Just as one friend might do with another, Ima was trying on Victoria’s clothes!
Gorillas are very attentive creatures, especially when it comes to their companions, be they humans or gorillas, and they often learn by observation. Luckily, the whole event was captured on camera and just as many documentaries can be found on YouTube, so too can this sweet interaction between human and gorilla.
As you might imagine, the video of Ima with Victoria’s hat went viral on YouTube almost overnight. It got lots of attention and was viewed over 12 million times, with over 46,000 likes. Of course, Ima and Djalta don’t care about social media, but little do they know, they are quite the Internet sensations!
It's quite amazing to see the emotional intelligence of these incredible creatures, it truly remains beyond comparison. Sadly, their numbers are dwindling and enormous efforts are being made to repopulate their natural habitats. We should always do our utmost best to help protect these creatures and their homes in the wild.
Where Do Gorillas Live?
Gorillas reside exclusively on the continent of Africa. Their natural habitat consists mainly of areas with dense vegetation, which occur in tropical rainforests or swamplands. There are two categories of gorillas, eastern and western. Eastern and western gorillas are quite different and the two groups probably emerged during the Ice Age.
Because they have been two distinct groups for so many years, they have evolved some distinguishing characteristics that are quite distinct. It's also worth noting that the gorillas Damian raised, Ima and Djalta, are western lowland gorillas, and there are approximately 5000 of them left in the wild, making them critically endangered.
Gorillas cannot survive outside of the rainforest, which is one more reason to help protect our planet’s rainforests. No other living being on the planet interferes with nature as destructively as we humans do. We are the reason why environmental protection is necessary and we're destroying nature faster than ever.
These gentle primates only leave the forest if they need to find more food. Mountain gorillas can even climb higher than the tree line if they need to find food. Their tracks have been spotted as high as 4,000 meters! This will probably become more and more common as their natural habitat continues to dwindle.
As of now, all species of gorillas are either endangered or critically endangered. The gorilla population has declined by almost 60% over the past 25 years. This is an estimation of course, because it is difficult to track just how many gorillas exist in the wild, especially because they do not generally like to be around humans.
There are many reasons for the species' decline, some of which include human-caused loss of habitat, poaching for meat, sport, or trophy, and deadly diseases such as Ebola. If we want to preserve these wonderful animals, we need to make sure we are helping to preserve their habitat and fight against malevolent practices like poaching.
Should You Approach Gorillas?
Though Damian and Victoria had a wonderful experience with Djalta and Ima, Damian was experienced with gorillas and knew the gorillas he was interacting with. As a rule, it is a good idea to leave wild animals alone. Gorillas are generally very shy and do not like to interact with humans.
They will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone and do not do anything to provoke them. Usually, due to human error, a gorilla can become dangerous. They will act out if they feel threatened. Again, it is a good rule of thumb to respect wildlife and not get too close!
What is bluff charging? A bluff charge is when a gorilla charges at whatever it perceives as a threat, and then stops only a meter away from its target. This is an act of intimidation and if the target remains calm and acts submissive, then the gorilla will usually leave them alone. They will not react violently if they don’t have to, as it takes a lot of energy to get into a fight!
However, if the target attempts to run, the gorilla may chase them. They are very fast and can easily catch a human target. As Damian and Victoria’s story shows, they are incredible creatures that deserve our respect as well as a healthy habitat where they can thrive and survive away from humans.
Damian and Victoria
Sadly, the couple separated after six years together. Victoria admitted in 2017 that she thought hard before accepting Damian's proposal, despite their clear feelings for one another. He has two daughters, Tansy, and Clary, with his first wife, Louise Sebag-Montefiore, and a third daughter Freya, with his previous girlfriend, actress Donna Air.
After their wedding, Victoria expressed that she wouldn't naturally go for that sort of setup." But the last snap she shared with Aspinall was in 2020 when they celebrated their four-year wedding anniversary. The couple was married for four years before splitting. It is estimated that Damian Aspinall is worth up to £200 million.