Making Friends With Mountain Gorillas

Image“For the past three years I have spent most of my days with wild mountain gorillas. Their home, and mine, has been the misty wooded slopes of the Birunga range, eight lofty volcanoes–the highest is 14, 787 feet–shared by three African nations, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo….
… I know the gorillas as individuals, each with his own traits and personality, and, mainly for identification in my hundreds of pages of notes, I have given many of them names: Rafiki, Uncle Bert, Icarus, and so on.

This familiarity was not easily won. The textbook instructions for such studies are merely to sit and observe. I wasn’t satisfied with this approach; I felt that the gorillas would be doubly suspicious of any alien object that only sat and stared. Instead, I tried to elicit their confidence and curiosity by acting like a gorilla. I imitated their feeding and grooming, and, later, when I was surer what they meant, I copied their vocalizations, including some startling deep belching noises…

…Rafiki’s particular group is unique in that there are no females or infants. Since the five males have no young to protect, they give full rein to their curiosity. It would seem that the boredom of their bachelor life is relieved by the many contacts we have shared.

These contacts have been been very exciting ones. Sometimes I observe the group from a tree, and Peanuts, Geezer, and Samson, the three youngest males, climb up to join me. It is they who investigate my camera equipment and my boots and clothing.

Rafiki and his friends were not a bachelor group when I first met them earlier. Living with them then was an elderly doddering female with atrophied arms, dried-up breasts, and graying head; I estimated her age at about 50 years. It it isn’t being too anthropomorphical, the five males seemed to love her, and most group activities centered about this aged matriarch. I named her Koko.

Mutual grooming– a kind of social ape behavior involving meticulous hair parting, searching, and plucking of particles– could always be induced by Koko. When she started it, the others would follow suit, and within a few minutes there would be an entire chain of intently grooming gorillas– a most unusual occupation among these particular apes. Since Koko’s death some twenty-three months ago, I’ve noted mutual grooming within this group on only two occasions.”

Dian Fossey, “Making Friends With Mountain Gorillas”, National Geographic, January, 1970.

The Fatal Obsession of Dian Fossey, Vanity Fair, 1986: