Are Gorillas Dangerous?

Large, powerful, and incredibly strong, gorillas are the largest primates in the world. Found in Central Africa, these forest dwellers have been hunted to the point where they are listed as endangered, but do they pose as much danger to us as we do to them?

Gorillas are not dangerous and, for the most part, are benign and calm. They would only become aggressive when they feel threatened or when protecting their young or territory from intruders or predators. In truth, these massive apes are more of the proverbial gentle giant than jungle terror.

While there have been stories of gorilla attacks on humans, many of these occur where they have confronted hunters or in places like zoos where their natural environment and freedom have been removed.

Let’s look at these amazing animals in more detail to understand why gorillas aren’t dangerous.

western lowland gorilla

Which are the most aggressive gorillas?

Male silverbacks are the biggest and strongest and will often fight each other for territory and females. When one silverback takes over another’s group, it may kill gorilla infants that he did not the father.

While this sounds cruel, it is commonplace in nature, and lions and other species will do the same to protect their bloodline.

Silverback males are massive, averaging between 4ft and 6ft tall and weighing between 400 lb and 600 lb. One of the largest ones ever recorded was 6’3 and had a 9ft arm span – not a creature you’d ever want to argue with.

They have strong jaws with a bite force of 1300 PSI and rank 5th out of 10 animals with the strongest bite force – stronger than a lion, tiger, grizzly bear, and polar bear.

While the male gorillas are the biggest and strongest, don’t discount the females as they can be ferocious when defending their young and have even been known to fight off marauding males that attempt to kill their babies.

While it’s clear that these are incredibly powerful animals, their aggression is not an everyday occurrence. They are intelligent, gentle animals until provoked or threatened.

Has a gorilla ever killed a human being?

Despite hunting and capturing them for zoos, experiments, and other cruel purposes, there are no recorded fatal attacks by gorillas on people- pity we can’t say the same for humans killing gorillas. 

There have been past instances of people being injured by them when they unexpectedly encounter gorillas in the forest or wander too close to their young. Even the rare aggression cases in zoos have not led to any deaths.

Often, hunters are injured by gorillas when they come across them in the wild, which is more an act of self-defense rather than blatant aggression.

Most aggressive behavior by gorillas toward humans resulted in minor injuries, which occurred when humans ignored warning signs not to come closer to the gorilla.

angry looking gorilla

Where do most instances of gorilla aggression happen?

Most reported incidents occur away from the jungle, where gorillas have been removed from their habitat, placed in strange surroundings, and deprived of their family, social structures, and natural surroundings.

In the wild, these primates are passive and peaceful and will generally only show aggression as a final warning when they or other group members are placed in danger.

How do gorillas display warning signs?

A gorilla that feels threatened will display warning signs to humans to back away. These can be anything from loud grunts to ripping down the surrounding vegetation.

If those don’t work, then the warning signs will escalate.

If those warnings are ignored, the silverback will stand to its full height and thump its chest, indicating they are ready to defend its family and territory, and at that point, humans should know to back off.

Their tremendously powerful arms and hands can easily snap limbs, so don’t try and get into a fight.

What to do if you encounter a gorilla

Suppose you are out in the jungles of the Congo and happen to walk into the vicinity of a gorilla. If you do experience that situation, there are ways you can reduce the likelihood of confrontation and make this one of those incredible life-changing experiences rather than a life-ending one.

If you see any of the warning signs described above, that’s a sign that you need to back away and one that should not be ignored under any circumstances. Another gorilla “no-no” is making eye contact and baring teeth, so smiling is out.

Remember that gorillas will take these signs as a challenge, so unless you want to learn firsthand how strong these animals are, be humble and back away slowly.

By lowering your head, avoiding eye contact, and assuming a less upright position, you make yourself smaller and reduce the perception of threat in the gorilla’s mind.

If you are there to take photos, don’t use a flash as this may startle them; the same goes for flashlights. Keep those pointed at the floor or off to avoid a potential conflict. Doing this will de-escalate the aggression as the gorillas will know that you pose no threat or challenge, and everyone will calm down.

As a final measure of safety, guides recommend a minimum distance of at least 25 feet, and no attempt should be made to touch a gorilla either. 

Even though some gorillas in the wild may be habituated and have become used to humans, that doesn’t mean you by default, and this tolerance for people is usually reserved for those they trust. Those relationships have taken years to develop.

Silverback gorilla

Habituated gorillas aren’t dangerous

Over the years and mostly due to work from the late Dian Fossey, gorillas have become habituated or used to having people in their habitat.

This process takes time, and during COVID, there was concern that habituated groups would revert to natural ways due to the lack of human contact.

So rangers in those areas maintained patrols to ensure that this relationship was preserved so that post-COVID, the tours could resume and continue generating the revenue they needed to protect and preserve these populations.

Should you ever have the good fortune to do a habituated walk through the jungles of the Congo or Rwanda, here is another tip to make yourself less of a target.

Don’t wear bright colors, as this will make you an instant target in the event of a charge. Stick with the dull jungle colors of green and brown and keep the flashy stuff for home.

Another reason not to wear bright colors is to avoid startling them if you unexpectedly walk in on a group – the more you look like the jungle, the safer you will be.

Gorilla shows Steve who's boss | Deadly 60 | Series 2 | BBC

Final thoughts on dangerous gorillas

Gorillas are not dangerous, but they have their rules in their world, and it would be wise to be aware of them and obey them.

Should you ever have the rare honor of encountering them in the jungle, you should keep your distance and admire them for their power and gentleness.

Considering how humans have treated these gentle giants of the forest in the past by removing their habitat, killing them for sport, and capturing them for zoos, it’s phenomenal that there has never been a recorded encounter of a gorilla killing a human and as humans, there is a truly valuable lesson in there for all of us.