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Legendary Mountain gorilla silverback dies of old age

15/09/2009 14:29:09

Titus died of old age. Credit The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

"Gorilla King" Titus dies

September 2009. On the morning of Sept. 14, trackers at the Karisoke Research Centre found the legendary silverback gorilla Titus, dead on his night nest in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. He was 35, which is quite old for a male mountain gorilla. Titus had been the dominant male in one of the gorilla groups studied for many years by Karisoke and was the subject of the documentary "Gorilla King" TV series.

Persistent challenges from son
Observers believe that his death was hastened by persistent challenges from his son Umushikirano - called "Rano" by researchers. "Titus was still a strong leader of his group until the end, but the stress was too much for him at his age," says Karisoke's Gorilla Program Coordinator Veronica Vecellio. "We will remember him as a most special silverback."

Born in 1974
Titus' eventful life began in 1974, observed by Dian Fossey and her research assistant Kelly Stewart, daughter of actor Jimmy Stewart. Kelly was the first to see the newborn, so she named him Titus after a character in a novel she was reading. His mother, the elderly Flossie, lived in Fossey's Group Four, led by his father, Uncle Bert. Fossey noted in Gorillas in the Mist that Titus seemed to be "underdeveloped and spindly" and had difficulty breathing. He soon overcame these disabilities, the first of many challenges he faced in childhood.

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Father killed by poachers
When Titus was 4 years old, poachers killed his father Uncle Bert, his uncle Digit, and his younger brother. Soon after, a newly arrived silverback named Beetsme killed Titus' infant sister, causing his mother and older sister to flee to another group. Titus was left at age 5 to live with a few unrelated males, including Beetsme and Tiger, that were soon joined by Peanuts and two others. The group remained all-male for several years, until another group's silverback died and five females came to join the bachelors. Beetsme eventually drove off all the other males except for Titus, who was favoured by Papoose, the dominant female.

Titus was one of the best known of all the Mountain Gorillas. Credit The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Titus was one of the best known of all the Mountain Gorillas. Credit The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Took over as boss in 1991
As Titus matured, he gradually challenged Beetsme for leadership, until at age 17 he finally succeeded in taking over. However, he allowed Beetsme to remain as an assistant, helping to protect the group, until the Beetsme's death in 2001. This challenged the assumptions previously held by primatologists that male gorillas could not form a group together, and that a dominant male would have to leave his group after being usurped by a younger male.

At first, Titus's childhood in an all-male group set him back in the important area of mating, once females joined the group. According to observers, the females had to teach him. But Titus went on to sire more offspring than any other male among those studied by Karisoke. In fact, DNA tests show that his first offspring, his son Kuryama with Papoose, was conceived when Titus was only 11, setting another record among mountain gorillas known to science.

Even tempered
An unusually even tempered and skilful leader, Titus maintained his dominance over a group of some 25 individuals without difficulty for many years. However, in 2007 Kuryama began to provoke confrontations, until he simply split off with some of Titus' followers and formed his own group. Although the split was achieved without violence, it prefigured hard times to come for the aging Titus. Over the next two years several females transferred to other groups, until only Tuck remained. Three blackbacks and two juveniles rounded out the group.

Son returned to challenge
Finally, in August 2009 a new challenger emerged. In another unprecedented development, Titus' 17-year-old son Rano returned from a sojourn as a lone silverback. He had not been seen for two years. Again, this countered the observation that lone silverbacks rarely returned to their natal group. At first, Rano's arrival did not disturb the group. His one aggressive move toward Titus was rebuffed by all. Then Rano made several sexual overtures to Tuck, despite Titus' protests (expressed in "pig grunts") and Tuck's indifference. Titus and his followers began to travel every day in an attempt to throw off the intruder, but Rano followed them doggedly.

Titus and 4-year-old Ihumure showed signs of illness in early September. The group ceased travelling and settled down, with Rano among them. Ihumure seemed to have recovered, but Titus hardly moved and ate very little for a few days until his death.

Concern for younger gorilla
Rano and the three blackbacks left the area after Titus died, then returned to circle around for a while and eat and rest at a short distance from the body. Tuck left on her own with her infant Segasira, but she also returned for a while, avoiding the group of males, before she then left again. Trackers are looking for Tuck, but according to Vecellio the field staff's main concern is for Ihumure. Since his own mother left the group in March, Ihumure had been totally dependent on Titus, who shared his night nest with the youngster to keep him warm in the cold mountain climate. Ihumure did not want to leave Titus's side even after the elder's death, and appeared quite depressed. Staff from Karisoke and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project are making sure that Ihumure is not left alone, and they will soon decide whether he needs medical attention. In the meantime, they left Titus's body overnight in the forest because it was felt to be important to the group's cohesiveness.


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