The Gorilla Foundation is successfully conducting the longest interspecies-communication project in history, and the only one involving gorillas, “Project Koko” which includes gorillas Koko, Ndume and the late Michael.  Building on 4 decades of pioneering breakthroughs in communication-based research, education, conservation and care, we have a 4-part plan to ensure the future of great apes and to sustain Koko’s legacy of enabling us to "talk with the animals."


1) CARE: Complete an Enhanced Gorilla Sanctuary

Gorillas Koko and her male companion Ndume currently live at a 7-acre sanctuary in Northern California (Woodside) attended by a group of dedicated caregivers who are conversant in Amercian sign language (ASL). We are planning to implement significant enhancements to Koko’s Woodside Sanctuary to give the gorillas more enrichment and interaction options, room to accommodate a larger family, and a training center to teach caregivers from all over the world how to employ basic sign language to dramatically improve captive care — especially enrichment, safety and health.

We have learned that there is no substitute for 2-way communication to understand the thoughts and feelings of our fellow great apes, and to convey ours to them,  for our mutual well-being and enjoyment.

The enhanced sanctuary will also feature comprehensive camera coverage so that the public can “tune-in” to interspecies conversations with gorillas, without disturbing their privacy — which is especially important for adult male (silverback) gorillas, who need to feel they’re completely in charge of their family group (interfering with this can cause great stress and affect their health).

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2) CONSERVATION / EDUCATION: Save Gorillas from Extinction via Empathy

The Gorilla Foundation’s award-winning children’s book, Koko’s Kitten, based on the true story of Koko and her first kitten, All Ball, has already been read by millions of school children in the U.S, and thousands in African gorilla habitat countries (like Cameroon) where it is instilling increased empathy for great apes. A new book, Michael’s Dream, based on a story told by Koko’s late silverback companion, (Michael) to his caregivers in sign language, has just been published and complements Koko’s Kitten in a very powerful way: While Koko’s Kitten describes a sweet, nurturing female gorilla born in the United States who grieves at the loss of her kitten, Michael’s Dream is about a male gorilla born in Africa, who may have personally witnessed his parents being killed by poachers, and lived to tell us about it (thanks to learning sign language with Koko).

We have just partnered with the non-profit organization, Worldreader, to offer both books as e-books that can be distributed (via mobile phones and tablet computers) throughout Afirca.  The next step is to transform these readers into video-augmented eBooks (or "vBooks").

With your help, we can expanding on the power of these two empathy-evoking books by developing a multimedia version that combines both books..  The multimedia books will feature Koko and Michael expressing their emotional response to their respective real-life dramas in sign language, with links to a sign language dictionary.  They will be packaged into a single e-book with a supporting curriculum and built-in assessment tools to measure the degree of change in attitudes and behaviors towards great apes before and after epxosure to the curriculum..

With gorillas facing imminent extinction in Africa — despite years of conservation efforts by other organizations — preliminary data suggests that our unique interspecies empathy-based materials are the key to success, and may be the last hope for free-living great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) to continue sharing this planet with us.

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3) RESEARCH / EDUCATION: Share 40+ Year Data Archive to Advance Great Ape Understanding

We continue to collect data on all aspects of our interactions with gorillas Koko and Ndume, and have recently begun entering it into a modern relational database that supports both linguistic and cognitive research. However, it remains to digitize several decades of analog data collected before the digital era so that we can answer deeper questions, and enable collaboration with other researchers — as well as schools and the general public.

To facilitate this effort, we are developing a Koko sign language App that will enable others to learn Koko’s sign language (ASL) directly from Koko.   Our current prototype of the Koko App includes individual video sign look-up by name or description and links to real-live scenarios (videos) of Koko signing with caregivers, with and without subtitles, to facilitate learning learning. 

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4) LONG-TERM: Transmit Koko’s Legacy to Future Generations of Gorillas and Humans

Koko is currently the only living gorilla that communicates with us fluently in sign language. However, all gorillas have the potential to learn sign language — Michael, who grew up with Koko from age 3, learned to sign as quickly as Koko, and developed a sign vocabulary of over 500 signs (compared with over 1000 for Koko).  But even zoo gorillas have been observed by researchers using their own complex gestural systems to communicate, and it  therefore natural to assume that all gorillas have the capacity to learn a common sign language with humans.

Koko has also become a powerful ambassador for her species — a spokesperson, by virtue of her language skills, her charisma, and her expressed love of both kitten and human companions.  In fact, her role was recently upgraded an ambassador for Nature, when she was asked to be the “Voice of Nature” in a video PSA presented to attendees at the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21). The intent was to raise awareness about the effect of climate change on other species and the importance of biodiversity for global survival.

But Koko is not unique — any gorilla or great ape who is given the opportunity to learn some basic sign language could become an ambassador too, and the more ambassadors, the greater the probability that gorillas will have a sustainable future.

Thus, it would be irresponsible of us to allow Koko to remain the only gorilla that communicates with us in sign language, given how (relatively) easy it would be to teach others. The benefits of two-way communication are too great to ignore — directly, for gorillas in captivity, and indirectly (via the empathy it produces) for gorillas in the wild.  And there are also profound benefits for humanity — who has been yearning to “talk with the animals” for generations. Now we can.. The question is: how willing are we to do what it takes to continue the dialogue with our closest living species?

The Gorilla Foundation plans to extend Koko’s legacy via a 3-pronged strategy:

1) Teach caregivers at other great ape institutions (zoos and sanctuaries) how to incorporate two-way communication via sign language into their every day lives, with minimum effort and maximum benefit, 

2) Allow Koko to have and participate in a natural family gorilla group, at the enhanced Woodside Sanctuary, with a couple of young female companions and some teachable toddlers, and

3) Establish the first large-scale gorilla sanctuary outside of Africa, on Maui Hawaii — the Maui Ape Preserve —  where the next generation of conversational gorillas can live wonderfully enriched lives, observed by the public through video cameras only, and inspiring all of us to protect this critically endangered species in Africa, as we continue to learn from them about our origins and our potential.

Establishing a natural family group for Koko will take carefully planned partnerships with other gorilla institutions — and while it is not guaranteed, it is a goal that Koko shares with millions of people around the world, who would love to see Koko transmit her culture to a new generation of gorillas, as well as to see fulfill her life-long wish and be truly happy! 

Establishing the first “natural” sanctuary outside of Africa, can begin with purchasing the 70 acres of land we are currently leasing on Maui, Hawaii, and partnering with another gorilla institution who shares our vision to expand the Maui Sanctuary (aka the Maui Ape Preserve) to approximately 350 tropical acres (concentric with the current leased site) — as the future home of the Gorilla Foundation, and an Center of Excellence for Interspecies Communication.

The world has changed since Koko and Michael first proved that gorillas could use sign language to successfully communicate their thoughts and feelings to humans, which has enriched our lives and raised our awareness about the sentience of other animals in the process.   Now it is our turn to return the favor — for Koko, gorillas as a species, and the 3 other (endangered) great ape species.

When we save gorillas, we are investing in our own future as well, a future where our age old dreams of talking with the animals and connecting with other intelligent life in the universe become everyday reality!

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The Gorilla Foundation /
1733 Woodside Rd., Suite 330
Redwood City, CA, 94061
1-800-ME-GO-APE (634-6273)

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Our mission is to learn about gorillas by communicating with them, and apply our knowledge to advance great ape conservation, education, care and empathy.

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