Aired Sunday April 20th, 2008 at 7:00 pm
King among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Titus (pictured) is one of only 700 of his kind alive today.
In 1974, renowned primatologist Dian Fossey introduced a young researcher named Kelly Stewart to a gorilla family Fossey was studying. Stewart, daughter of actor Jimmy Stewart, was the first to see a tiny new baby gorilla, whom she named Titus.
Her journal entry began the up-close observation of his life that researchers have continued to this day. Titus' turbulent life story, from orphan to ruler and the challenge to his throne today, is chronicled on NATURE's "The Gorilla King," airing Sunday, April 20, at 7 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7. Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham is NATURE series narrator.
"To be able to retrace one animal's life in the wild for more than three decades, as this film does, is a rarity in wildlife filmmaking," said Fred Kaufman, series executive producer. "That the species is one of our closest relatives, with a fascinating social organization, makes it even more compelling."
At 33 years old, the 400-pound silverback Titus has ruled for nearly half his life, an astonishing feat given the early trials he faced. When Titus was four, his father was slaughtered by poachers. Shortly after, his infant sister was killed in a coup attempt by an interloper named Beetsme. That wasn't unusual; when a male outsider takes over a group, he will kill all the infants and sire his own offspring. Titus' mother and other sister fled, leaving him orphaned and abandoned.
In the next period of his life, Titus and five other gorillas lived in an unprecedented male-only group. That lasted about eight years, until another group's silverback died and five females came to join the bachelors and a power struggle ensued. One by one, Beetsme drove off all the males except for Titus - who drew the affection of Papoose, the new dominant female.
In 1991, at age 17, he surprised researchers when he deposed Beetsme in a bloodless coup. Titus was entering his prime, but Rwanda was descending into the chaos of civil war, forcing researchers to flee. It created the only gap in his life's record.
Recently, Titus' rule was challenged by a leading male from the next generation, Kuryama. A leader like Titus needs powerful males like Kuryama to protect his group from outsiders, but frequent fights between the two led today's young primatologists in the field to believe the aggressive youth was angling for Titus' crown. The only question was whether the change in power would be hostile, as when Beetsme took over, or peaceful, as when Titus assumed the throne.
Ultimately, Kuryama avoided violence, but split off with his own group. He dismantled one of the largest gorilla groups ever observed, leaving Titus surrounded by only his most loyal subjects. In the course of their study, though, scientists discovered some astonishing facts about the gorilla king. They found that Titus had sired more babies than any mountain gorilla on record. DNA testing also showed that Titus conceived his first offspring at age 11, younger than any mountain gorilla, as well. And it turns out that child was Kuryama, his son from his mating with Papoose.
This program is also available in high definition on KUED 7.2 Sunday, April 20, at 9 p.m.
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