Maui to go cuckoo for Koko and company

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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Maui is going to the apes.

The Gorilla Foundation of Woodside, Calif., is planning to build a 70-acre gorilla preserve near the Kapalua Airport that will house Koko, a 29-year-old female gorilla who communicates in sign language, and a 19-year-old male companion named Ndume.

The Allan G. Sanford Sanctuary also will feature a Koko Visitor Center in Lahaina where visitors can have live communication through video monitors with the gorillas. Visitors will not be allowed at the preserve.

Plans for the visitor center include a cafe, a Project Koko museum and a gorilla art gallery featuring art painted by Koko and other gorillas.

The foundation said it hopes that the move to a more suitable environment on Maui will encourage the two gorillas to have children. It is further hoped that Koko will teach her offspring sign language.

Koko knows 1,000 "gestural words" of sign language and understands 2,000 words of spoken English, according to the foundation.

The Gorilla Foundation promotes the study of gorillas with a focus on gaining insight into the minds of other animals through language. It also aims to educate people to save great apes from extinction.

The foundation, which is leasing the land from Mary Sanford and the Maui Land and Pineapple Co., is looking for more funding to begin construction.

Foundation development director Kevin Connelly said the foundation wants to have both the preserve and visitor center completed in one to two years.

"It has been a long-term hope of the directors to locate the gorillas in a climate that is more like where they come from in Africa," said Connelly of the move to Maui.

"This spot will offer them more space and better weather. Where we are in northern California can be quite rainy and cold."

Connelly said Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, and that she became part of the Gorilla Foundation in 1979.

For information on the Gorilla Foundation, visit www.koko.org or call (650) 216-6450.

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