January 31, 2014 / 4:40 PM / 5 years ago

Africa's last polar bear mourns partner's death

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Wang, the only polar bear in Africa, has taken the death of his life-long partner very hard, tearing up toys and grass in the enclosure they shared, and two weeks after his loss he is still grieving.

Wang, the only polar bear in Africa, reacts as he mourns the death of his companion, Geebee, for the past two weeks at the Johannesburg Zoo, January 31, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The 30-year-old Geebee was found dead on January 13 in the pool of her Johannesburg Zoo enclosure after a heart attack. The two had been partners since they arrived at the South African zoo in 1985, each of them barely a year old.

“When we found her dead he wouldn’t let us to her,” the zoo’s chief vet Katja Koeppel told Reuters on Friday.

“He refused to go back into the night room. He stayed out in the sun.”

If not pacing about, Wang stood by Geebee’s body and barely ate his rations, she said. After 24 hours, Koeppel had to sedate Wang to retrieve Geebee’s remains.

For days afterwards, he was inconsolable, cutting up his toys and even bending the steel door of his pen, she added.

On Friday, Wang often nestled his head beneath his formidable front paws, as though trying to shut out the world. Occasionally he raised his head to sniff the air.

“He is coming to terms with it,” said Koeppel.

Geebee arrived nearly three decades ago from Canada, while Wang came from a zoo in Japan. Despite being life-long partners, they did not breed because females must be in temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius for a minimum of 30 days.

In the wild, polar bears live for about 18 years and tip the scales at 400kg (880 lbs). Wang is now 250kg after losing muscle mass due to extreme old age and liver failure.

“I don’t expect him to live for more than a year. He is 30 now. He is an old man,” Koeppel said. When his time does come, it is likely to be the end of polar bears in Africa.

“It is not right to keep polar bears in this environment and we are doing nothing for conservation because we can’t breed them,” she said.

“It is not appropriate to have polar bears in captivity in Africa.”

Reporting by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura; Editing by Gareth Jones

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