Did You Mean Sign Language? Or Gang Signs?

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

I grew up in the 80’s, so NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and the big, fuzzy, kitten-loving gorilla, Koko, was very much a part of my childhood. From a very early age, I accepted as fact that gorillas and other non-human primates could not only learn sign language but were also capable of complex thoughts and a whole range of documentary-worthy emotions.

It has been years, if not decades, since I’ve sat down and actually watched any of the original 1970s and 80s footage depicting any of what I just described, but I seem to recall the gorillas communicated through sign language innocuous things like “happiness” and “sadness” and “where is my kitten?”

So, imagine my surprise when I arrived to the wilds of Uganda and found them all communicating not so much in American Sign Language, but more in American Gangsta.

This one channeled Marlin Brando from The Godfather, and I’m pretty sure he was trying to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
This one channeled Marlin Brando from The Godfather, and I’m pretty sure he was trying to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

To me, the primates in Uganda didn’t appear to be using sign language so much as actual gang signs.

This one threw a few signs down low to his homies.
This one threw a few signs down low to his homies.

I later caught him making a throat slitting gesture across his neck.

With a finger gesture across his throat, this one let me know what would happen if I talked.
With a finger gesture across his throat, this one let me know what would happen if I talked.

Over in the gorilla camp, this little guy seemed nervous.

It was as if this little one was trying to nervously communicate to me how important it was that I kept quiet -- for my own good. I think he knew they were planning something.
It was as if this little one was trying to nervously communicate to me how important it was that I kept quiet -- for my own good. I think he knew they were planning something.

The gangsta gal above distracted us by twisting her finger adorably against her cheek, like a little girl with a lollipop, but in actuality, she was giving the silverback time to sneak up behind me like a silent ninja.

This one seemed to be looking up, just over my shoulder. What?! Oh God, what's behind me?!
This one seemed to be looking up, just over my shoulder. What?! Oh God, what's behind me?!

He's right behind me, isn't he.

He was.

It was as if this one could hardly bear to watch, but was unable to resist a good nail-biter.
It was as if this one could hardly bear to watch, but was unable to resist a good nail-biter.

The silverback gang lord eventually sat down, and everything seemed to deescalate.

After I calmed down, I started thinking it was possibly all in my head -- all this gangsta business -- but then the very next day, this little dude flashed a straight up gang sign at me as he sped off on the back of his pop’s dope ride.

Baboon youths are starting to join gangs at younger and younger ages.
Baboon youths are starting to join gangs at younger and younger ages.

Either that, or the little monkey’s just learned to count to four. It was hard to tell. But it felt like a ride-by.

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Baboons have their own notorious band of outlaw grifters as well, and you can read HERE about how they tried to hijack our car.

"We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty…”
"We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty…”