LONGLEAT'S famous 56-year-old gorilla has died after half a century at the safari park.

Nico the western lowland gorilla who was one of the oldest silverback gorillas in the world, passed away in his sleep on January 7, leaving a whole in the heart of the safari park.

Darren Beasley, Head of Animal Operations at Longleat, said: “Everyone here has been truly saddened by the death of Nico.

“His main keeper has been working with Nico virtually on a daily basis since 1989 and has forged an extraordinarily close bond with him.

"It goes without saying that he is particularly devastated by the loss.

"Nico was one of the oldest gorillas in the world and we all knew he could not live forever, however the fact he had become such a part of life here at Longleat makes it all the more upsetting to know he has now gone."

Nico arrived at Longleat in 1986 from Switzerland and although there is no official record of his date of birth it is believed he was at least 56 years old.

He had his own, centrally heated home which even had satellite television installed so he could watch his favourite cartoon shows.

He was a familiar site to visitors who were able to observe him on his island home from passing boats.

Nico shared the island with his mate, Samba, until she died in 2007 aged 47.

Over 17,000 comments were made on social media where people paid their respects.

On Facebook, Lynne Penhaligon said: "So sorry to for your loss, we have many pictures of Nico and lots of wonderful memories. He will be greatly missed."

Natalie Mills said: "I shed a tear when read this out to my family. We've seen Nico few times when enjoying the Longleat boat ride. What a magnificent animal and we pass our condolences to the Longleat team."