Saturday, October 18, 2008

New documentary charts the captivating rise and fall of Titus the gorilla king

Alone at the summit of a mist-shrouded volcano, an old gorilla crouches beside a crater lake, staring forlornly at his reflection in the crystal-clear water. He remains there for hour upon hour, as if mired in deep despair.

The mighty ape is called Titus, and there is good reason for his sombre mood. Just months ago, he was king of the mountains - an unassailable colossus surrounded by 25 loyal 'courtiers' who obeyed his every command.

In our world, too, he was an A-list celebrity: his remarkable rise to supremacy has been logged, charted and filmed by a team of primatologists from the moment he was born, in August 1974, making him the most instantly recognisable primate on the planet.

Sadly, however, as a fascinating new film reveals, Titus' glory days are over.
When the documentary team returned to film him recently, they discovered he had been usurped by a young pretender - and so this once-great ape is condemned to wander the peaks which straddle the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in a state of lonely exile.

These days, Titus' only followers are two doting, middle-aged female gorillas, who apparently refuse to accept that he has lost his crown.

Since Titus ruled supreme for 17 years in the Virunga Mountains, and overcame every conceivable obstacle to attain power, it is a poignant, undignified end. But at least this redoubtable mountain gorilla will not be forgotten.

Titus: The Gorilla King is being screened next month to mark the 25th anniversary of BBC2's award-winning Natural World series. The film not only celebrates the invaluable role Titus has played in furthering our understanding of his endangered species, but it is also a wonderful adventure story.

By combining breathtaking new footage with grainy old video camerawork shot in his youth, the remarkable biopic makes his saga every bit as compelling as that of any great monarch. It also contains previously unseen diary extracts recorded by Dian Fossey, the fabled Gorillas In The Mist author, who first made friends with these formidable beasts 40 years ago.

As we follow the many twists in Titus' life, not to mention his domestic dramas and complicated sexual liaisons, we are also reminded that the day-to-day existence of a 400lb gorilla is not so very different from that of some modern-day human beings.

As the veteran conservationist Ian Redmond (who taught Sigourney Weaver how to grunt like a gorilla when she portrayed Fossey in the film Gorillas In The Mist) puts it, 'We share so many traits and characteristics that we tend to think of as uniquely human. It's fine to recognise that - as long as we don't put our cultural values on their behaviour. Mountain gorillas are not monogamous, for one thing, and they're never going to behave in a way we consider to be politically correct!'

In the case of the libidinous Titus, this is certainly true.
The story of Central Africa's mountain gorillas dates back thousands of years, when the volcanoes erupted, spewing molten lava on the lowlands where they then lived and forcing them to climb 12,000ft for survival.

The gorillas remained there, undisturbed, until 1902, when they were discovered by white explorers whose arrival heralded even greater danger than the red-hot lava.

As the century progressed, they became a prized target for trophy hunters and poachers. They also contracted human-borne diseases, so that when Fossey began her research in 1967, their numbers were being seriously depleted and she became convinced they would be extinct by the end of the 20th century.

Titus' epic struggle is a testament to the intelligence and resourcefulness which, thankfully, has proved this greatest of all gorilla watchers to have been unduly pessimistic.

It began 34 years ago, when he was spotted by Kelly Stewart - daughter of the actor James Stewart - who was one of Fossey's disciples. She went on to become an eminent primate expert.

She was routinely observing a female called Flossy, whom she assumed to be alone, when she glimpsed some tiny pink fingers nestling in her thick brown fur. Realising it was a suckling newborn baby, Professor Stewart whooped with delight. She named him Titus after Titus Groan, the book by Mervyn Peake, which she was reading at the time, and followed his progress with fascination.
With his unusually symmetrical features and noble brow, he appeared more 'handsome' than rival males, according to gorilla behavioural expert Martha Robbins.

And his imposing physical presence was enhanced when he developed a distinctive orange crest of fur, which made it appear that he was wearing a crown.

Primatologists believe a male's physical appearance may play an important part in his ascendancy. If he has a large ridge of bone at the top of his skull, like Titus, this allows for extra jaw muscle, which means his bite will be stronger and he will be better equipped to defend the group.

Yet, according to Yale University Professor David Watts, who has spent more time studying him than anyone, it was Titus' personality that really marked him out from the rest.

'Like any young male gorilla, he had his

share of fights, but he always seemed very calm, and I think he found a good balance between being strong but not too excitable or rough. He also has this confident, calm demeanour, and comes across as having great dignity.'

Titus formed his first, and perhaps most crucial, relationship when he was barely two years old and had just left his mother's nurturing to start his quest for independence.

Normally, a young male outsider gorilla never joins a family group, but, in 1976, a confident adolescent swaggered into their midst. 'Who on earth's that?' exclaimed one gorilla-watcher at the Fossey camp. 'Beats me!' Dian replied, whereupon the newcomer - Beetsme - was christened.

Titus and Beetsme soon forged a close bond, but a few months later they were stricken by a brutal and tragic sequence of events which would shape their destiny.

In 1977, Fossey's favourite gorilla - Titus' Uncle Digit - was slaughtered by poachers who hacked off his head, hands and feet as trophies, leaving only his torso behind.

She lobbied vociferously for the Rwandan government to protect the mountain gorillas and catch the culprits; a campaign which probably precipitated her murder, with a poacher's machete, six years later.

The callous bounty-hunters returned, this time killing Titus' father, Uncle Bert. While the other gorillas mourned, the opportunistic Beetsme saw his chance to grab power.

Intent on demonstrating his aggression, he lashed out at Titus' mother, Flossy, who was cradling her baby. The vicious blow killed Titus' sister, and, in her grief, his mother fled into the forest.

So, at four years old, Titus was an orphan. At this point, many young gorillas might have retired meekly into obscurity, but not Titus
With all the stealth and guile of an aspiring politician, he began manoeuvring for the day when he would be strong enough to stage his own challenge for the leadership.

The group of gorillas had now fragmented, but, extraordinarily, Titus chose to remain with Beetsme, and they were soon joined by five other adolescent males. The research team had never known a group of young black-backs to form a band, but they remained together, even indulging in ' homosexual' sex games, before eventually being joined by five females eager to teach them more conventional love-making techniques.

As self-proclaimed king of the clan, Beetsme was having his way with the most desirable females, leaving his rejects to Titus and the others. However, by DNA testing, researchers have discovered that Titus was secretly mating with his leader's chosen harem.

His revenge was complete seven years later, in 1991, when, after demonstrating his superiority over Beetsme in a series of sparring matches, Titus won the support of the other band members and seized the crown in a bloodless coup. For an 18-year-old silverback who had overcome such terrible adversity, it was a momentous achievement.

Soon after, the Rwandan civil war broke out: a frenzied blood-bath which saw 900,000 people slaughtered in just 100 days. The conflict dragged on for a decade, during which the gorillas - like any other animal in the region - were wantonly killed for money or food.

For 15 months during this dark chapter, even the dedicated researchers were unable to keep track of the gorillas. When they regained contact with Titus, they were delighted to learn that he had not only guided his family to safety, but that their numbers had grown.

Today, thankfully, the Rwandan government has set up effective patrols, and the total mountain gorilla population has swelled to a healthy 720.

In a saga of so many tortuous twists, however, there is one final irony. Genetic tests have proved the gorilla who recently deposed Titus - a robust young silverback named Kouriyama - is actually his own first-born son, who was conceived during those secret love-making sessions behind Beetsme's back at the tender age of 11.

Though this is highly unusual, it somehow seems a fitting conclusion. For it means Titus' dynasty will continue long after the volcanoes echo to the Mountain King's last defiant roar.
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buddy2blogger on February 27, 2012 at 12:15 PM said...

This is one of the best Nature documentaries out there. Excellent review as well :)

I would also suggest 'Mountain Gorilla(IMAX)' and the BBC Earth series 'Mountain Gorillas'.



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