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News Report From 1999 Shows How Harambe The Gorilla Got His Name

News Report From 1999 Shows How Harambe The Gorilla Got His Name

Harambe was a 17-year-old silverback gorilla who was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a boy climbed into his enclosure

Harambe the gorilla may have achieved bizarre celebrity status after his untimely death, but despite the fact he became a household name across the world, not many of us actually know how he got his memorable moniker – or what it means. Find out how it came about here: 

Harambe was a 17-year-old silverback gorilla who was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a boy climbed into his enclosure. With fears for the child’s life, zoo staff killed the huge gorilla, saying they were left with no choice. 

But he actually hit headlines long before that, having found some level of fame in the late 1990s when he was just a baby. 

A three-year-old climbed into Harambe's enclosure.

After being born at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, the infant gorilla became the subject of a naming contest – won by a man called Dan Van Coppenolle, a local special education counsellor. 

Van Copponolle had found inspiration when listening to a 1988 song by Rita Marley - Bob Marley's widow - while working out one day, touched by the poignant meaning of the tune’s name. 

Dan Van Coppenolle in 1999.

Speaking about the contest in 2016, to reflect on Harambe’s death, he told CNN: “When I entered the baby gorilla naming contest in 1999, I somehow knew the name Harambe would be the one that was chosen.

"It came to me one day while I was on my treadmill listening to some music. A song by Rita Marley, ‘Harambe,’ came on. It was a live performance recording from a Bob Marley Tribute concert in Central Park.

"Halfway through the song, Marley explained what Harambe means. It's a Swahaili name meaning working together, pulling together, helping each other, caring, and sharing. I remember thinking what a cool word it was and that I should share it with my students. 

“After I was finished exercising, I sat down to read my local paper and came across an article about a contest to name a baby gorilla at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

"Immediately, a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought of Harambe. It seemed perfect: an inspiring African name for an endangered species. 

“At the time, I was a special education counselor who travelled to many schools working with special education students with severe emotional and behavioral disabilities.

"As fate would have it, I was attending a counseling in-service that day at a conference room at the zoo. I decided to type up my entry along with a description of the word Harambe. The uplifting message of the name seemed fitting, and the judges agreed.” 


It wasn’t until 2014 that Harambe was transferred to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, where he was able to learn adult gorilla behaviour and socialise with a new group of animals. 

Two years later, tragedy struck when Harambe was fatally shot by a zoo worker – news that came left Von Coppenolle feeling ‘deeply saddened’. 

He added: “Harambe's name - and even his death - can serve as a lesson for all of us.

"The truth is, human beings have become distant from nature, and increasingly from each other.

"But Harambe's name can be a reminder for all of us to work together, pull together, help each other, share, and care not just for each other, but for all of God's creations.” 

Featured Image Credit: Cincinnati Zoo

Topics: Animals, Harambe