How to Speak Gorilla

by Jessica Allen

After hiking for several hours through a dense bamboo forest, you’ve finally reached a group of gorillas. You whip out your camera, stabilize your footing against a thick mat of leaves, and begin shooting photos. That’s when you hear the moaning. Loudly. Pugnaciously. The gorillas have sensed something in their midst.

Say hello to a gorilla.
Say hello! Photo by Jessica Allen

While mountain gorillas have been habituated to humans for tourism for years, some still associate us with poaching and therefore may assert their dominance. So to keep the greatest of the great apes happy, you have to talk their talk, huff their huffs, grunt their grunts. You might even need to bark a bit. Here’s how to speak gorilla in 9 steps.

1. Hop a Plane: Mountain gorillas live in the volcanic mountains of Central Africa. To date, none have survived in captivity (those in zoos are lowland gorillas), and around 880 remain in the wild. If you want to see the world’s largest primates in their natural habitat, you’ll need to travel to one of four national parks in Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Do not watch King Kong or Congo, a sci-fi movie about a psychotic band of apes guarding secret diamond mines, beforehand.    

2. Pay the Fee: Gorilla tracking is expensive. A single, one-day permit costs $500/person in Uganda, $750/person in Rwanda, or $400/person in the DRC, a portion of which goes directly to the communities nearby. Most visitors hire a safari company who reserves the permits in advance. Along with paying the fee, you’ll need to show your passport and sign a waiver, absolving the park of responsibility in the event of death or injury. As in many countries, common sense tort law abides. Putting your John Hancock on the waiver shows that you understand the risks inherent in hoofing up a volcano to spend an hour hanging out with wild animals.

3. Look Lively: Park rangers will divide visitors into small groups, roughly based on each visitor’s visible level of physical fitness. Some gorilla families require a further trek than others. Rangers want to ensure that each person is not only capable of hiking on uneven terrain for several hours but is also free of any obvious illness. Since we share 97–99% of DNA with gorillas, we can easily transmit our diseases to them. They, however, don’t have the same immunities we have, so even our minor discomforts like stomach trouble or the flu can be quite dangerous. (Some parks ask visitors to wear surgical masks for an extra layer of protection.) Pack an anti-inflammatory, tummy soothers, and cold medicine—and take as needed in the days leading up to your trek.

4. Start Walking: Depending on where your gorillas are located, you’ll drive to a park entrance. You may then have to walk through farmland, which extends right to the edge of the national park. And yes, gorillas have been known to wander out and into adjacent fields and villages.

Wave to the women tending crops. Let the children show you their drawings for sale. Many know just one word in English: howareyouIamfine. Respond in kind. Even better, learn a few greetings in the primary indigenous language. A hearty, no doubt mispronounced “oraho” or “oli otya” helps acknowledge the inherent complexity of traipsing through someone’s farmland with your SLR slung over your Gortex.  

For people trying to survive and provide for their families, the concept of environmental conservation can mean little; in fact, the protected parkland might even signify lost income, since the land can’t be used for farming or to make charcoal. On the other hand, gorilla trekking brings foreign currency and employment into the area. Jobs at the national parks tend to be coveted, in part because they offer an opportunity to interact with and encourage tourists to tell family and friends back home about the enthusiasm and optimism of Central Africa, attitudes that rarely make it into the media.  

5. Walk Some More: Mountain gorillas inhabit bamboo cloud forests, approximately 8,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level. Although there are some paths, the rangers will take you wherever the gorillas are—which means significant time spent fighting through bramble and brush. That’s why the rangers carry machetes. Sometimes they also carry machine guns, depending on the location of the guerrillas who also make parts of these parks their home. 

And all rangers carry mobile phones, used to communicate with trackers, who have the job of actually finding the gorillas. Development in the area has privileged fiber optic cables and cell towers over electricity and running water. One ranger’s ringtone? “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

6. Meet the Gorillas: Much like the metaphor of Africa as the dark continent, the idea that gorillas are maniacal monsters has little basis in reality. Gorillas are far more interested in eating grass than in eating you.

You’ll probably hear them before you see them, particularly a hollow pocking—the sound of a hand the size of your head hitting a chest the size of a love seat, walloping a tree, or slapping the ground. We humans are much closer in temperament to violent, spazzy chimpanzees than peaceful gorillas, who prefer to spend their days grooming, resting, and feeding. Especially feeding. What strikes our ears as ominous or frightening is just the way these creatures say hello.

The once-a-day, hour-long tourist visit is scheduled to coincide with the gorillas’ mid-morning feed or immediately thereafter. A hungry gorilla will decimate surrounding vegetation, pulling plants out by the roots and spilling food everywhere. Quickly their shiny black coats become covered with bits of bamboo, wild celery, and detritus from the other 200 or so types of vegetation they enjoy eating—up to 60 pounds a day. Unlike in the movies or cartoons, you won't see them snacking on bananas or blondes. Listen to the mau-mauwings and gnum-gnuming. It's hilarious. 

7. Be Polite: Gorillas like to chatter. An adult is capable of roughly 25 sounds. A deep exhalation (almost a purr) from the back of the throat shows relaxation. Try it: “huhhhhhhh.” Hum, tunelessly or not, as they do. Burp. Moan “eeerrrpppp.” Hoot or coo. By mimicking their noises, you demonstrate your friendliness.  

Animals in nature thrum with energy, even at rest. They demonstrate a wide spectrum of emotions, from big-eyed curiosity in the young ones to jokey aggression in the adolescent males known as blackbacks to sitcom-dad-esque irritation at being woken from naps in the silverbacks. The biggest look like furry refrigerators. And the tiniest might try to approach you, only to be body-checked by a juvenile female who’s learning mothering skills. These babysitters have moves wrestlers would envy.

8. Obey the Rangers: The rangers will carefully observe the animals for any signs of unhappiness, including a breathy, motorlike chuffing used to communicate trouble, and will make sure that at least seven meters separate you from the gorillas at all times. If the gorillas get up and move, you’ll likely follow, assuming your sixty minutes aren’t up. 

In the unlikely event that a gorilla approaches you, stay calm, relaxed, and passive. Avoid eye contact. The rangers and trackers are there to protect you and the gorillas from trouble.         

9. Put Down Your Camera: Sixty minutes go fast. Try not to spend the whole time looking through a lens. Marvel. Laugh. Feel privileged and honored to have witnessed primates in their natural habitat being their sloppy, joyful, noisy selves. Go ahead and let it out: “Eeeemmmhhhhurrraaaaahhhhh.” Then listen for a response.