April 18, 2002

Gorillas help build their new Hawaiian home

  • In choosing plants for new habitat, Koko’s taste was the guide

    Dr. Patterson and Koko
    Photo by Ron Cohn, courtesy the Gorilla Foundation
    Dr. Patterson and Koko talk at breakfast.

    Here’s a question that is rarely asked by landscape architects: How do you collaborate with a sign-language gorilla with final say over your design project?

    Koko the gorilla approves of her new home in Hawaii. But tough clients like this call for tough plants. And bringing habitat for the zoo-bred primate into sync with island ecology calls for special care.

    It all began more than 25 years ago when Dr. Penny Patterson, then a young graduate student in psychology at Stanford, first saw a tiny, undernourished baby lowland gorilla named Hanabi-Ko at the San Francisco Zoo. Within a year, her Project Koko was underway, and in two weeks the gorilla was using correct signed gestures for food, drink and more.

    Today, Koko has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words. Koko and Ndume, a male lowland gorilla, share quarters at The Gorilla Foundation near Woodside, Calif. As traffic on the nearby coastal highway has increased, the gorillas have become more fearful of the vehicle noise. Koko and Ndume have also made it clear they have an aversion to the cold, damp weather of the San Francisco area. They refuse to go outside or are often prevented from being exposed to the elements during the winter. A new location was needed, some place warm and quiet.

    The Maui Land and Pineapple Co. generously donated 70 acres of the Pu’u Kukui watershed above its West Maui pineapple farm in 1995, to honor islander Allan G. Sanford. This site, around 1,500 feet in elevation, will provide a spectacular view for the gorillas that includes the rolling green hills of the pineapple country below, followed by the ocean and islands of Lanai and Molokai in the distance.

    A design team was assembled to take the next step. The Gorilla Foundation hired Patrick Janikowski Architects (PJA) of Seattle in 1999 by to lead the design work necessary to accommodate several gorilla families, including Koko and Ndume, in a large enclosed outdoor environment, with indoor facilities for food preparation and human-gorilla communication studies.

    AHBL was brought into the project by PJA to provide the landscape expertise necessary to create a friendly and safe environment for gorillas at the Allan G. Sanford Gorilla Preserve.

    There were unique challenges to the planting design. The facilities were designed from a gorilla-centric perspective and in some cases the gorillas have made comments on the design directly. Choosing the right plants for habitat was also a shared responsibility, because many of the choices had never been tested for gorilla toxicity or compatibility.

    Based on my experiences working on the Honolulu Zoo, I knew importation of plants to Hawai’i is nearly impossible. We would have to rely on plants available on Maui. Second, the Maui Invasive Species Committee, led by Randy Bartlett (who is also the Pu’u Kukui watershed supervisor for the Maui Land and Pineapple Co.) further required that we only use plants native to Maui, which I had advocated as well. However, few nurseries on Maui grow native plants, and those who do have been using pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And then there is a question that faces all zoo designers: plant toxicity. The plants used in the areas inhabited by gorillas could not inflict any harm, via contact or ingestion.

    Almost no toxicity testing has occurred with a majority of the native plants on Maui. With the help of Ranae Ganske, at USDA-Molokai and Bob Lani at USDA-Kahului, I was able to assess the toxicity of a range of Maui native vegetation and create a list of plants capable of withstanding the unique impacts of Koko and Ndume, while providing them a lush environment in which to live.

    DeeAnn Draper of The Gorilla Foundation often would take samples of plants back to Koko to seek her approval. And in some cases, it meant taste-testing the plants myself.

    Once the plant list was finalized, I worked with DeeAnn to acquire seed stock and cuttings of the native plants. We then propagated them on site to ensure that they would be grown without chemicals. We also created a two-acre browse farm that will supply organically-grown fruits, vegetables and banana leaves for the gorillas.

    There was one non-native plant that I wanted to use on the site. I had worked with a sterile variety of vetiver zizanoides while working on the design and construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. Vetiver is a Southeast Asian grass long used by humans for its aromatic roots. It is nearly indestructible; its roots can penetrate 25 feet down into the soil, it can withstand tremendous amounts of grazing and physical impacts, and is non-toxic. We had used it with gorillas at the Disney project and observed that it held up well.

    I mentioned the possible use of vetiver grass to Ranae and Bob and was surprised to find that they had been field-testing a sterile variety at their Molokai test facility for possible use on erosion control projects. Randy Bartlett of MISC wanted assurances that the grass wouldn’t spread. Bob, Ranae, Randy and I walked the site and talked about how the vetiver would be used. Ranae noted that their vetiver trial was in its tenth year and the sterile strain had not shown any signs of self-seeding. Randy agreed to a trial planting of 100 small plugs of vetiver grown at the USDA-Molokai test site.

    It has now been two years since the initial planting and the vetiver has done an excellent job of controlling erosion in the red clay soil of the site. The vetiver clumps are now being dug and divided to provide more rooting stock for the gorilla enclosures in anticipation of Koko and Ndume’s arrival in Maui this fall.

    Thanks to The Gorilla Foundation and the entire project team, Koko and other gorillas now have a safe and natural environment in what will become the first gorilla sanctuary outside of Africa. For more information about The Gorilla Foundation, Koko, or the Maui Preserve, visit

    Duane Dietz is a senior landscape architect at AHBL.

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