In 1974, renowned primatologist Dian Fossey introduced a young researcher named Kelly Stewart to a gorilla family Fossey was studying in Rwanda. Stewart, daughter of actor Jimmy Stewart, named one of the baby gorillas Titus. Titus’ turbulent life story, from orphan to ruler and the challenge to his throne today, is chronicled in Nature “The Gorilla King,” airing Wednesday, July 6 at 7:00 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
“To be able to retrace one animal’s life in the wild over more than three decades, as this film does, is a rarity in wildlife filmmaking,” said Fred Kaufman, Nature executive producer. “That the species is one of our closest relatives, with a fascinating social organization, makes it even more compelling.”
At agr 33, 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 gorilla 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 peacful coup. Now Titus was entering his prime, unfortunately Rwanda descended into the chaos of civil war, forcing researchers to flee. It created the only gap in Titus’ life 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 primatologists 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 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.
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