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John O'Reilly
June 20, 1960
In an unprecedented experiment, a young scientist and his wife set out to share the daily life of giant gorillas in Africa's mountains. Here is the exclusive story of what they found—plus the first close-up pictures ever made of gorillas in their native wild
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June 20, 1960

The Amiable Gorilla

In an unprecedented experiment, a young scientist and his wife set out to share the daily life of giant gorillas in Africa's mountains. Here is the exclusive story of what they found—plus the first close-up pictures ever made of gorillas in their native wild

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For the first time in history a man and woman, alone and unarmed, have gone among wild gorillas to live with them on a basis of friendly coexistence. George B. Schaller, a young biologist from the University of Wisconsin, and his pretty blonde wife Kay are now in the Belgian Congo engaged in the first protracted study of gorilla life ever made under natural, undisturbed conditions. How closely Schaller has entered into their lives is shown in the extraordinary pictures on these and the following pages which he took as he sat among the gorillas and watched them eat and sleep and play through long days in the African wilds.

Reacting to his calm, nonbelligerent approach, the gorillas have accepted him in a spirit of cautious curiosity. This mutual tolerance has resulted in scenes which have never before taken place between the world's two largest primates. At times Schaller has found himself in the midst of a troop of gorillas, with the animals staring at him from all sides. He has stood face to face with a gorilla, looking into its deep brown eyes at a distance of six feet. On occasion he has sat on the same limb with them. He has devoted day after day to watching their every movement, while they returned the scrutiny with such avid interest that it became a question of who was making the most intensive study of whom. He now knows their moods, their expressions and their reactions. Bundled in his sleeping bag, he has passed nights at the edge of gorilla troops curled in their individual nests, and once he awakened to find one sound asleep only a few feet from him.

In consequence, Schaller already has assembled a mass of data on the life history and behavior of the wild gorillas that are new to science. Furthermore, his observations in total present a picture of this largest of the anthropoid apes that is almost directly opposite to the popular conception. Ever since Paul du Chaillu, the French explorer, published his exaggerated accounts of wild gorillas a hundred years ago, the concept of this animal as a ferocious, ill-tempered, man-hating beast has grown in the public mind. Motion pictures portraying the gorilla with a beautiful blonde slung over its shoulder have added to the characterization.

By contrast, the Schallers have found the gorilla to be an amiable animal which lives in peace with others of its kind and with the world around it; a creature which attacks man only under the severest provocation; an unusual mammal whose life is so placid that even sex is incidental and not worth fighting about. Schaller's studies also show the need for continuing investigations of the gorilla and the great need for its preservation.

These new facts concerning the gorilla will be included in a scientific report when Schaller returns next summer. Meanwhile, he has sent to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED lengthy accounts of his life with the gorillas and the things he has learned about them.

The two-year gorilla study is being financed by the National Science Foundation and the New York Zoological Society. Before establishing a permanent camp in the Congo, Schaller and Dr. John T. Emlen, supervisor of the project and professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin, devoted six months to studying the habitat and distribution of the mountain gorilla and to locating the most favorable site at which to study its social behavior.

They decided on the region of the Virunga Volcanoes in Albert National Park (see map) because its vegetation is better suited to continuous observation than the denser jungles, and the gorillas have rarely met man. There, in the high mountain forest, George and Kay Schaller began the unique experiment in August 1959.

The essence of Schaller's technique in getting on friendly terms is unobtrusiveness. "Previous expeditions sent to study the gorilla," he writes, "always ventured into the forest with gunbearers, camera carriers, trackers and porters. As recently as 1953 an expedition to the Virunga Volcanoes arrived with 120 porters and finished their supposed study without ever having seen a g~orilla. Even if gorillas are encountered by such expeditions, the animals usually flee or, if closely pressed, attack."


"Dr. Emlen and I reasoned that no animal likes to be approached by a horde of people. We decided to go alone and unarmed. It worked well. Now, even if I am accompanied by a park guard, I make him stay behind when the gorillas are near. Slowly, in plain sight, I approach a troop of feeding or resting gorillas to within 80 to 150 feet, depending on the terrain and visibility.

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