Into the spotlight of study come two mountain gorillas, whose existence is threatened by the encroachment of man. Only scattered groups remain to roam the misty forests of central Africa.
Into the spotlight of study come two mountain gorillas, whose existence is threatened by the encroachment of man. Only scattered groups remain to roam the misty forests of central Africa.
Photograph by Dian Fossey

Making Friends With Mountain Gorillas

In remote African highlands, a daring American woman studies some of man’s closest nonhuman relatives in their age-old environment.

This story appears in the January 1970 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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 Virunga range, eight lofty volcanoes—the highest is 14,787 feet—shared by three African nations, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

During this time I have become well acquainted with many of the gorillas, and they with me. They roam the mountain slopes and saddles in groups, and several groups now accept my presence almost as a member. I can approach to within a few feet of them, and some, especially the juveniles and young adults, have come even closer, picked up my camera strap, and examined the buckle on my knapsack. One has even played with the laces on my boots, though I have a feeling that he did not suspect that the boots were, in fact, connected with me.

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.

The gorillas have responded favorably, although admittedly these methods are not always dignified. One feels a fool thumping one’s chest rhythmically, or sitting about pretending to munch on a stalk of wild celery as though it were the most delectable morsel in the world.

Gorillas are the largest of the great apes. A mature male may be six feet tall and weigh 400 pounds or more; his enormous arms can span eight feet. The mountain gorilla’s range is limited to a small area of lush wet forests in central Africa. There only a few thousand remain, leading a precarious existence. Part of the territory they occupy has been set aside as parkland, and, theoretically, gorillas are strictly protected. But in fact they are being pushed into ever-smaller ranges, chiefly by poachers and Batutsi herdsmen. Unless a better-planned and more-determined effort is made to save the mountain gorilla, it is doomed to extinction within the next two or three decades.

One of the basic steps in saving a threatened species is to learn more about it: its diet, its mating and reproductive processes, its range patterns, its social behavior. I had read of Jane Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees and visited her camp in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. In 1967, with help from Dr. Louis Leakey and grants from the National Geographic Society and the Wilkie Brothers Foundation, I began a study of the gorilla.

The study was not without interruptions, one of them quite serious. I began my work in the Congo on the slopes of Mount Mikeno. After only six months of observation, I was forced to leave the country because of political turmoil in Kivu Province. This was a substantial setback, for the gorillas there roamed within a fairly well-protected park system without the constant threat of human intrusion. Thus they were not unduly frightened by my presence, and observations were extremely profitable.

After leaving the Congo, I started again, this time in Rwanda. My new camp is near a broad meadow that forms part of the saddle area connecting Mounts Karisimbi, Mikeno, and Visoke.

Although my old camp was only five miles away, I was to find that the Rwandese gorillas had been so harassed by poachers and cattle grazers that they rejected all my initial attempts at contact. It was in Rwanda, after 19 months of work, that the second interruption came. But unlike the first, it was to prove highly valuable to my study.

Piteous Cries From a Playpen Prisoner

Its beginning is still vivid in my mind—a misty morning in February as I walk up a slippery elephant track of mud that serves as the main trail between the nearest Rwanda village and my gorilla observation camp at 10,000 feet on Mount Visoke. Behind me, porters carry a child’s playpen, its top boarded over. From the playpen comes a wailing which grows louder and more piteous with each step we take. It sounds distressingly like the cry of a human baby.

Helpers Move a Forest Indoors

The chilling fog swirls a tag game in and out of the great trees; yet the faces of the porters drip sweat after the four hours of hard climbing since leaving the Land-Rover at the base of the mountain. Camp is indeed a welcome sight, and the three Africans who comprise my staff come running out to greet us.

The previous day I had sent them a frantic SOS asking them to convert one of the two rooms of my cabin into a forest. To ruin a room by bringing in trees, vines, and other foliage had seemed to them sheer nonsense, but they were used to my strange requests.

Chumba tayari,” they now call, telling me the room is all ready. Then, with many screams and orders in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language, they wedge the playpen through the doors of the cabin and deposit it amid the trees that sprout between the floor boards.

Now I pry off the top boards of the playpen and stand back. Two little hands appear from the inside of the box to grip the edges, and slowly the baby pulls himself up. His large brown eyes gaze about the room that is to be his home for the next 68 days. They blink at the sight of familiar mountain vegetation left behind so unwillingly when he was captured almost a month previously.

Then the small black bundle leaps into a pile of nesting material. Hands beat upon the foliage in excitement. But enough of that, there’s a tree to climb! Up he goes, hand over hand, until he reaches the ceiling—certainly an unusual way for a tree to end!

Eventually he sits down to peer longingly through the window that faces the slopes of Mount Visoke just a few hundred yards away, and there he finally cries himself to sleep in pathetic body-wracking sobs. Coco, my first infant gorilla charge, is “at home.”

In a week’s time Coco, a male about 16 months old, was joined by Pucker Puss, a 2-year-old female full of complexes and inhibitions. However, by the time Pucker arrived at camp, Coco was beyond enjoying her company. He was as near death as an animal can be without dying.

Both gorillas had been captured by Rwandese park guards and tribesmen for a zoo in a European city—despite the fact that international conservation authorities have declared the mountain gorilla a rare species, its numbers so limited that survival is a concern. Though I deplored the capture, I volunteered to take care of them until they were shipped away.

Coco had spent 26 days in a wire cage that allowed him no room to stand or sit up. His diet had consisted of alien foods and no liquids, but he had accepted bananas readily and so had managed to survive.

Pucker Puss had refused to eat at all. She was terribly thin and weak, and shared with Coco an intense fear of humans.

The following few weeks were spent in getting acquainted with the young gorillas, giving them medication around the clock, and introducing new foods and formulas. Ever so slowly, they learned to trust me.

Those were trying days, and to make matters worse, the cook quit when I asked him to help out with formula preparation and bottle sterilization. He informed me in Swahili, “I am a cook for Europeans, not animals.” The other men were also on the verge of leaving—what with constant demands for fresh foods from the forest and the removal of even fresher dung from the room.

I had to give up my field work temporarily, although in the end my field studies were supplemented and speeded by what I learned from my young charges. This was true especially after they recovered their health sufficiently to be taken out into the surrounding forest.

These excursions provided a unique opportunity for observing feeding habits, grooming, and vocalizations at close range in their natural habitat. It was fascinating to watch the intricate maneuverings of the animals as they searched for worms and beetles in tree trunks or groomed themselves for minute flecks of dead skin.

Then, all too soon, the infants were demanded for their trip to the zoo. Their last excursion into the forest was a maudlin one on my part, but happily the babies did not know they would never see their mountain home again.

Silverback Rules Each Forest Group

Two days after Coco and Pucker had left, I resumed my field work. But after more than a two-month absence from my wild gorilla groups, I was uncertain of my reception.

Thus far in my studies I had watched nine groups, each numbering from 5 to 19 members. The average was 13. Of these nine, I had chosen four for close-up observation.

One dominant male, or silverback (so called because the hair across the male gorilla’s back turns silver with age), reigns without question within each group. The subordinate males serve as sentries and guards.

For clarity in my field notes, I refer to the groups by numbers. The gorillas I contacted on my first day back in the field were Group 8; they are headed by Rafiki, a wise old silverback.

Armed with some new vocalizations learned from Coco and Pucker, I approached the group, feeling like a stranger. Would I have to win their acceptance all over again?

Naoom, naoom, naoom,” I croaked, first in the deep tones of Coco, then in the higher-pitched voice of Pucker. (This particular sound, I had learned, apparently meant, “Food is served. Come and get it!”) The reaction was something to behold. Rafiki came up to me with an expression that seemed to say, “Come on, now. You can't fool me!” They had not forgotten me.

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 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 almost two years 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. If 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.

Koko’s Final Trip Poses a Mystery

Not long before she disappeared, Koko showed signs of actual senility by wandering away in aimless circlings. On such occasions the five males would just sit down and wait for her return. Sometimes Rafiki would give a soft hoot-bark, causing Koko to head back toward him. She would then go up to Rafiki and embrace him in a most human-appearing way; invariably he would return the embrace.

Gorillas build sleeping nests—usually on the ground—of foliage, branches, and sometimes moss or loose soil. Frequently Koko and Rafiki would share the same nest, and looked for all the world like a gracefully reclining old married couple who need no words to strengthen their mutual respect.

Then, for two days, Koko and Rafiki were absent from the group, leaving the remaining three males under the eager leadership of a silverback I’ve named Pugnacious. Indeed, Pugnacious was just about to be carried away by his newly assumed responsibilities when Rafiki returned—alone.

What happened to the body of Koko I shall probably never know. An immediate backtracking of the two-day-old trail showed that she had shared night nests with Rafiki, and then it seemed as if the earth had literally swallowed her up.

Uncle Bert Shows a Softer Side

I've found that the character of a group is frequently determined by the character of its leader, and I had an opportunity to observe, in one instance, what happened when the leadership changed.

When I first encountered Group 4, it was under the calm rule of a silverback named Whinny—the name because he was unable to vocalize properly. Yet the little horse-like neighs that came from him were as effective in alerting his group as were the louder roars and screams of the other silverbacks.

But after some months of sickness, Whinny died, and leadership was taken over by another silverback, Uncle Bert. He clamped down immediately on the group’s activities like a gouty headmaster. The gorillas’ previous calm acceptance of my presence was replaced by chest beating, foliage whacking, hiding, and similar alarm activities.

Not only their behavior but their route was also changed significantly. Instead of utilizing the lower and midsections of Visoke, Uncle Bert persisted in taking the group higher and higher toward the summit ridges.

Perhaps too quickly I labeled Uncle Bert a cantankerous old goat. One day, as their rest period was breaking up, a small infant approached him and leaned against his back. I was about to predict an unhappy fate for this baby, but Uncle Bert surprised me. He picked up a long-stemmed Helichrysum flower and tickled the baby with it. Soon the infant was scampering about like a puppy, and Uncle Bert was lying on the slope, tickle switch in hand and a most idiotic grin on his face.

Mother Provides a Baby’s First Slide

Play seems to be one of the first activities inhibited by the presence of an observer until a group becomes well habituated. For this reason I consider it more common than previously thought.

The most popular game is sliding. Infants practice this on the mother’s body, then graduate to dirt banks and tree trunks. The favorite playtime seems to be a sunny morning or after an afternoon rest period.

I watched one afternoon as a feeding group reached an open lava slope. While most of the gorillas were still eating, two young adults chased one another across the clearing. The others stopped feeding to watch.

Then, in a sequence lasting more than 20 minutes, the rest of the group joined in, tumbling and rolling across the slide area. When they reached the edge of the clearing, they grabbed branches of giant Senecios, swung on them until they broke, and, still holding the foliage, rolled in a jumble down to the bottom of the slope.

Brahms, Bartok, and Beethoven, the three silverbacks of Group 5, have taught me to what extent they will go to protect their young. These particular three have a very close rapport with their fellows. Often they give rein to paternal inclinations by casually plucking infants from their mothers’ arms to groom them. The older infants and juveniles seem very secure in the protection of the adults; as a result, they push the silverbacks almost to the limits of their patience.

One day Icarus, a little wizened, elf-eared fellow, was trying out a new acrobatic routine in a sapling some ten feet away from me when the tree came down in a splintering crash, Icarus and all. The crashing noise had barely died away when the air vibrated with the screams and roars of the silverbacks as they charged toward me with the females bringing up the rear. Plainly they held me responsible.

They halted about five to ten feet away when they saw Icarus, none the worse for his spill, calmly climb another tree. Oblivious to the furor he had created, he was all angelic innocence. But the silverbacks remained tense, giving frequent alarm barks.

Then, to my dismay, a small infant climbed into the same broken sapling and began a shaky series of spins, twirls, leg hangs, kicks, and chest pats—all the while exuding blasé self-importance. No high-wire artist ever had such a rapt audience. The eyes of the silverbacks darted back and forth between the infant and me. When our glances met they roared their disapproval.

Surprisingly, it was Icarus who broke the tension. He climbed playfully to the infant’s tree and launched a game of tag which led both animals back to the group. Brahms gave a tension-releasing chest beat followed by a noisy run downhill through the thick foliage; Bartok and Beethoven followed suit. The crisis had passed.

“White-fanged Ape-man” a False Picture

My study of the wild gorilla is not yet finished, and even when it is complete, it will contribute only a small part toward man’s understanding of his closest animal relatives, the great apes. But one conclusion is already clear: The gorilla is one of the most maligned animals in the world.

After more than 2,000 hours of direct observation, I can account for less than five minutes of what might be called “aggressive” behavior. And even this really amounted to protective action or bluff. That was the nature, I am sure, of my most dramatic encounter, in which five large males charged at me, roaring explosively. They stopped—the leader was only three feet away—when I simply spread my arms wide and shouted “Whoa!”

Naturally an animal is going to try to protect itself, and there are a number of recorded instances of gorillas attacking humans when the latter hunted them. And there are the tales of the “intrepid white hunters” who have “courageously” faced the screaming charges of the white-fanged hairy ape-man. The result is the common, and quite false, picture of the introverted, peaceful vegetarian that I have come to know.

The fact is that when man moves in, in numbers, the gorilla moves out, and therein lies the threat to his existence. The Parc des Volcans in Rwanda, where I conduct most of my studies, is heavily infested with poachers and herdsmen, whose cattle graze right through my camp area. Park boundaries have no meaning to these tribesmen.

The poachers are of two kinds. First there are the honey gatherers living near the forest—mainly land-tilling Bahutu—whose worst crime is cutting trees that harbor bee nests.

The other poachers are usually members of the Pygmoid tribe known as Batwa. Their main prey is normally the duiker, a small red forest antelope. They set snares that may leave the animals hanging up in the air by one leg for days.

They do not, to my knowledge, hunt gorillas deliberately, though occasionally one does get caught in a snare trap. But the sounds of the hunt terrify the gorillas; they flee from the hunters, and in one instance that I observed, it took two days for a group to get back together.

Thus the mountain gorilla faces grave danger of extinction, primarily because of the encroachments of native man upon its habitat—and neglect by civilized man, who does not conscientiously protect even the limited areas now allotted for the gorilla’s survival.

Money alone will not solve the problem. Conservation groups and political authority must join in concerted programs if this three-nation area and its wildlife are to be saved from human trespassers.

Such help is overdue. I only hope that Rafiki, Uncle Bert, Icarus, and my other forest friends can survive until it comes.

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