“More and more visitors act as tourists rather than as ecotourists and eventually destroy what they came to see” (Russon, Susilo and Russell 2004)… How about we change that?
Help us protect Great Apes & observe this code of conduct when visiting them!
Of course, the rules listed in the general EwA Wildness Etiquette apply to visiting Great Apes. Here we are getting into further details and highlight special considerations and requirements when you visit any of our siblings: Chimps (including the smaller Bonobos), Gorillas and Orangutans.
It’s easy to not behave mindfully. Out of ignorance, it is even easier to not know that we might have a negative impact. Let’s be aware that in a moment of excitement (and no matter how well intended we are), we could forget those rules. Let’s be humble and keep ourselves in check.
All great apes are endangered. Actually, this is not quite true... If you search directly for ‘Great Apes’ in the IUCN Red List species assessment database, then what you get back is not 6 species (as most expect), but 7. Six of them are endangered, 4 of which being classified as Critically Endangered –the highest risk category assigned by the IUCN Red List for wild species. All of the 6 endangered species continue to see their population decreasing. The 7th is on the contrary rapidly increasing and classified ‘Least Concern’: Homo Sapiens.
All great apes (other than us) are indeed endangered. The population numbers and their decline over the last century are staggering. It is not the time to feel desperate, instead we have to work harder, raise awareness, and take action to protect them in their natural habitat. Letting them disappear is absolutely not an option for them and us.Great Apes Populations Estimates
- Gorilla beringei (Eastern Gorilla). Critically Endangered: Pop < 5000 | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Gorilla gorilla (Western Gorilla). Critically Endangered: Pop ~ few hundred thousand | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Pan paniscus (Bonobo). Endangered: Pop ~ 20,000 | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Pan troglodytes (Chimpanzee). Endangered: Pop ~ few hundred thousand | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Pongo abelii (Sumatran Orangutan). Critically Endangered: Pop < 15,000 | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Pongo pygmaeus (Bornean Orangutan) . Critically Endangered: Pop < 60,000 | Pop. trend: ⇩ Decreasing
- Homo sapiens (Human). Least Concern: Pop > 7,500,000,000 | Pop. trend: ⇧ Increasing
Knowing is Caring: Learn before you go. Visit them well prepared so as to minimize your impact, and maximize safety for anyone (them included) as well as for the enjoyment of everyone. Enjoy!
No wandering on your own. Stay with your group. Beware that large human groups are threatening to them.
▸ We should not crowd them. This means understanding what is the optimal visitors’ group size for the species we are observing. It is generally advisable to be less than 6-8 people total. Experts recommend the number of visitors to not exceed 6 for Eastern gorillas, 3 for Western gorillas, 6 for chimpanzees, and 5 for orangutans [ME10].
▸ Always stay as a group. As visitors, it is important to stay together in a close group so that they can gauge you at a respectful distance. Having a dispersed crowd of humans around is stressful and certainly for the apes in charge whose job is to defend the group or its infant. You would not want to be surrounded by a group of strangers –the same applies to them. Remaining together is also a safety matter for us. For instance, chimp groups are less cohesive than gorilla groups, and under no circumstance should a visitor be separated from his group in the vicinity of displaying adult males who are up to 5 times stronger than an average man.
▸ Speaking of chimps: No visitor younger than 15 yo should be allowed in their presence. Chimps are known to have attacked young humans. No need to over-react, they are not thugs either. We are actually more dangerous than they are, so just remain calm, respect proper ape etiquette and follow the instructions of your guide.
[Check Also: Get Your Bearings Right]
Disease transmission is real and can kill them. Take it seriously and make sure you’re healthy prior to your visit.
The fact that great apes are genetically close to us, brings a whole set of health rules specifically geared at protecting us and them who are not immune to our germs.
▸ A must: People who feel sick should not go trekking or generally approach any great ape of any kind.
Why? They are susceptible to get sick with our human parasites and germs. It is devastating to see how many of humans don’t know this and too often indulge in getting as close as possible out of ‘love’.
Many great ape sites require that tourists present proof of vaccination, or a current negative test, for a number of diseases. Vaccination requirements may include polio, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A and B, yellow fever, meningococcal meningitis, typhoid and tuberculosis (or proof of negative skin test within the last six months). This regulation has a number of advantages: besides preventing the spread of these particular diseases, it reinforces the visitor’s perception that tourism poses a risk to the apes. [ME10]
▸ Don’t spit. Don’t cough and if you do, get first at a greater distance (> 20 meters / 60 feet) and contain your cough in your elbow (not the hand as we will touch trees, grass and therefore potentially increase contamination of the area).
▸ Many research groups now wear face masks to avoid transmitting airborne diseases. Consider doing the same. How about bringing one anyway: they cost nothing, weigh nothing, and can save lives. (Check EwA’s Wild Tip: Wearing a Face Mask when Visiting Great Apes).
💡 #DYK —Anthroponoses
Research often focuses on infectious diseases animals have given to humans (i.e., zoonotic diseases). However, an increasing number of reports indicate that humans are transmitting pathogens to animals. These are called reversed zoonoses or anthroponotic diseases. Because of habitat loss, and increased form of wildlife viewing and tourism, reversed zoonoses can be devastating when it concerns our genetic siblings that the great apes are.
For instance, in Tanzania, a fatal outbreak of human metapneumovirus in wild chimpanzees is believed to be the result of researchers and visitors viewing the animals in a national park that was once the great apes’ territory. [KT08]
In a bid to save wild apes from extinction, people may be unwittingly infecting them with potentially deadly diseases, new research shows. Humans and great apes are closely related, creating the potential for diseases to jump between them.
Please go to the bathroom before you set out. And where possible, visitors should try and wait until they are out of the forest.
▸ Do not defecate close by. Take care of any needs before leaving the base camp. Transmission of parasites, as many gastrointestinal parasites are passed through feces. For instance, chimps in tourism areas have higher numbers of E. coli (a gastrointestinal parasite) than chimps living near villages [GT07].
In short, our poop is simply unhealthy for them. Our poop hosts pathogens (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasites) that may be harmless to us but can be harmful to them. Again, incidences of troops decimated by epidemics are not uncommon [KS08].
Our poop is also harmful to them because it is vastly chemical in nature as a consequence of how we grow and process our food. [FI10]
▸ If you must relieve yourself, then wait and do so at a great distance from their site (ask your guide). Dig at least 2 feet down and bury it.
▸ Expectedly, our urine is also an issue. For instance, it is asked that we do not urinate within 100 meters (320 feet) of the gorillas, nor in any water source. If at all possible, a small hole should be dug and the urine covered over with dirt. [ME10]
Hitting the hour mark? Time to go (and let them ‘be’)…
Great apes visits are usually limited to an hour. Those group visit duration rules are very important so as to reduce animals’ exposure to potential germ-carrying people minimize behavioral disturbance and associated stress in the animals. Even when these rules are not acknowledged or enforced by the local tour operators it should be our responsibility as tourists to raise awareness about why this is necessary and promotes adhesion to these rules.
[Check Also: Timing and Duration]
Don’t get close. Know and respect the viewing regulations.
Healthy visitors should be no closer than 10 meters (33 feet) from an orangutan or a chimpanzee, 7 meters (23 feet) from an habituated gorilla.
This is no joke and it is for their sake and health. Again we are too close genetically and they are not equipped to handle well our parasites and germs (many of which we don’t even know we carry since they are harmless to us).
▸ Respect the regulations in place or our distance approach recommendations if none are enforced locally. It is important to understand that these are minimal and not optimal regulations.
▸ Never get in between an infant and an adult. And sadly –as we have witnessed such harmful behavior– we also have to add explicitly: don’t chase an infant for getting that last snap/selfie or for any other reason. Again observe at a distance and at the edge of the ape group. [BS16]
▸ Move at a leisurely pace: no sudden movement. Never run! Again if there is an aggressive display or a precarious situation, listen to your guide and comply promptly with his/her instructions.
▸ Note that some guides break the distance rules, often at the request of over-enthusiastic visitors. Intervene respectfully if you can when this happens and discuss with the requesting visitor(s)/guide why minimal distance rules are important. This also means that one should never pressure his/her guide to get closer (for any reason whatsoever). ([NM09], [DD07])
[Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!]
Do not feed them. Do not give them a drink. Do not eat in their presence. Do not leave your bag unattended.
Some over habituated apes are going to go for your bag.Do not respond to beggar apes either. As ethical visitors we have to understand that indulging in feeding them, we endanger their own survival and the survival of their infants.
For instance, do you know that it is said that the ratio of infants mortality from semi-wild orangutans or wild habituated orangutans is greater than 50%, which is much higher than the natural infant mortality rate. Reasons for this include the fact that habituated mothers are more interested in getting tourist food (usually unsuited to their diet) than teaching their infants jungle skills. In other words, their mother skills are greatly diminished as a consequence of our tourist actions. [DD07]
Human foods are also very much higher in sugar than wild foods. In monkeys eating foods like bananas, apples will lead to diabetes or obesity if they are not on a regulated diet. The same applies to apes. With orangutans for instances, high sugar diet potentially induces physiological disorders such as pre-diabetic syndrome, affecting their well-being. [DD14]
In short, our food is harmful on at least 2 accounts: health risk and habituation. Check our Field Notes, which showcases the issue of over habituation for some of the orangutans we encountered in Sumatra.
After 2 days flying across the world, we finally arrived! We were now few miles away from where some of the last Sumatran orangutans survive. Maybe a mother and her infant were even peeping through the canopy across the river right when we were opening the door of our guest house room.
[Check Also: No Feeding Nor Baiting]
Reduce your equipment sound levels to a minimum. Keep quiet, don’t imitate them or try to communicate with them.
This includes explicitly:
[Chimps] ▸ No grunting, hooting, panting, lip-smacking, whimpering, laughing, barking, screaming… They have a strict communication protocol (and some are aggressive communication mechanisms). Human smiling teeth have very good connotations signifying happiness. However, in chimps, showing teeth can have very bad connotations such as fear or aggression. Be careful not to show your teeth too much when in close proximity to the apes. We should respect them, and their culture and remember that it takes years of work to become as good as Jane Goodall in chimp language.
[Gorillas] ▸ No chest beating, grunting… If some of the chest beating activity is a group keep-in-contact tool for gorillas, some others are pure aggressive displays. In which case, it’s meant to assert authority and scare the opponent. So doing so, we’ll only get the males angry, and the chief in command in rage (the silverback). Yes infants do it and it’s cute, but they’re only practicing. As for us: there is no escaping this rule. We should be simply respectful of their culture, and be mindful so as to not wreak havoc in their group/family.
[Orangutans] ▸ No kiss squeaking or grumphing, bellowing or long calling… As with our other siblings, it is critical to keep quiet in the vicinity of orangutans. Instead, recognize few of their vocalizations such as the kiss squeak that can be a sign of curiosity, but more often a sound made when they are disturbed. Move further when you hear those sounds. Those sounds are also deterrent for them, and less dominant individuals will leave if they hear a kiss squeak.
Make sure that you understand the essentials of how they communicate so that you can be mindful and be responsive when they warn us that we are too close, too loud, etc.
[Check Also: Quietness & Peace]
Practice looking from the corner of your eye: generally making eye contact is extremely threatening to many primate species.
A humble body language is key: No putting up our hands or arms. No pointing.
▸ Staring is a no go: only our species stares at another with such intensity, but for most starring is a direct act of aggression. Following the same logic and understanding that a lens more less looks like a big eye, then accept that a lens can be perceived as a threat.
▸ So don’t stare or use camera/videos when they are disturbed. For instance, if an orangutan kiss squeaks and drop branches you know you have to stop right there and move back.
▸ As for your camera or video recorder: Do not use flash or use reflective devices, it is a stress factor for them. Wild animals are unpredictable when startled. Visitors have been seriously threatened by chimpanzees after ignoring this rule. Never try to attract an animal’s attention in order to take a better photograph.
Besides flash is of no use in a forest. At night? No flash either, or rather use red light. Follow the guide rules, and challenge respectfully the guide if himself uses white light.
[Check Also: The Greater the Distance, the Better for All!]
Slowly, surely, safely… Always!
If an ape comes within the approach distance, your guide should have you move away slowly, serenely, quietly.
▸ If an ape comes too close and you can’t move away, then remain calm and do not touch him/her. Again do not stare and remain humble. Keep low if you are among gorillas (i.e., where possible sit or bend when watching them).
▸ Keep your bag and other items in safer places where young gorillas cannot approach to investigate. If they take your bag, do not hold on to it or fight back. Your guide may be able to retrieve it later. Only bring the essentials into the forest: your and their health and safety is more important than anything.
“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” ― Chief Seattle
▸ Don’t take anything such as plant material, rocks. Don’t cut vegetation to have a better view. If you cannot get a good view, tell your guide and he will try to put you at a better point.
▸ Don’t leave anything behind: food, whatever, no nothing. Why? Again our trash is harmful on at least 2 accounts: health risk and habituation as explained in the previous rules. Check our Field Notes, which also showcases an example of over habituation of some Sumatran orangutans.
[Check Also: Leave No Trace]
We only know what we know…. And it’s easy to forget the rules in the moment, while in awe. Let’s accept that, be humble and keep ourselves in check.
▸ When you witness ‘code breaking’ by either visitors, guides or experts, don’t remain silent. Assess the situation and if safe then ask why they’re behaving the way they do. Discuss the known consequences. Those consequences can be lethal for our ape friends. The problem with our silence is that the issue is then deepening, and possibly impacting that ape directly.
▸ The best is to come prepared and discuss the rules with your party and the guide before getting on the site.
▸ In all cases, discuss respectfully with uninformed tourists, guides or experts. And if you feel you can’t (that is, if you feel unsafe or threatened), then report immediately to higher authorities as soon as you’re back to safety.
[Check Also: Listen, Help and Challenge Others]
If you are planning to go and visit great apes anywhere they remain, please take the time to also check our general EwA Wildness Etiquette. Help their protection and conservation where they were meant to live and thrive. Thanks!
[RA14] Orangutan Tourism and Conservation: 35 Years’ Experience by Russon, A.E. & Susilo, A (2014)
[ME10] Best Practice Guidelines for Great Apes Tourism by Macfie, E.J. & al. from the IUCN's Species Survival Commission (2010)
[BS16] A Visit to a Rwandan Gorilla Family by Bahra, S. (EwA publication 2016)
[OC17] The Red Apes of Bukit: Is Orangutan Tourism Ethical? by O'Neill, C. (EwA publication 2017)
[WA14] Guidelines For Best Practice in Great Ape Tourism by Williamson, E.A. & Macfie, E.J. (2014)
[FI10] Parasites and their Impacts on Orangutan Health by Foitová, I. & al. (2010)
[DD07] Behavioural Health of Reintroduced Orangutans (Pongo abelii) in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra Indonesia by Dellatore, D.F. (2007)
[DD14] The Impact of Tourism on the Behavior of Rehabilitated Orangutans (Pongo abelii ) in Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, Indonesia by Dellatore, D.F. & al. (2014). In Primate Tourism: A Tool for Conservation? by Russon, A. & al. (2014).
[DM14] In Indonesia, Irresponsible Tourism Threatens the Endangered Orangutan’s Survival by Dhumieres, M. In Public Radio International (2014)
[GT07] Patterns of Gastrointestinal Bacterial Exchange Between Chimpanzees and Humans Involved in Research and Tourism in Western Uganda by Goldberg, T.L. & al. (2007)
[NM09] Chimpanzee Tourism in Relation to the Viewing Regulations at the Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania by Nakamura, M. & Nishida, T. (2009)
[KT08] Descriptive Epidemiology of Fatal Respiratory Outbreaks and Detection of a Human-related Metapneumovirus in Wild Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) at Mahale Mountains National Park, Western Tanzania by Kaur, T. & al. (2008). Am J Primatol 70: 755–765.
[KS08] Pandemic Human Viruses Cause Decline of Endangered Great Apes by Kondgen, S. et al. (2008)
[MM14a] Reverse Zoonotic Disease Transmission (Zooanthroponosis): A Systematic Review of Seldom-Documented Human Biological Threats to Animals by Messenger, A.M. & al. (2014)
[MM14b] Considering Risks of Pathogen Transmission Associated with Primate-based Tourism by Meuhlenbein, M.P. & Wallis, J. (2014)
Sharing is Caring — Share this etiquette around!
Note that this Etiquette is and will remain a work in progress. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware. Let’s enjoy and protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!