The Gorilla King

Update: Titus Dies at Age 35 (September 2009)

The natural world has lost one of its most preeminent figures this week as Titus, known as the Gorilla King, succumbed to old age and died on September 14, 2009. His passing marks the end of a remarkable story, spanning four decades, as unique and dramatic as anything in the animal kingdom, and a treasure for primatologists and all naturalists the world over.

Watch the full episode of NATURE’s The Gorilla King online now.

The gorilla and his family are exceptional for having been under near constant observation since his birth on August 24, 1974. At maturity, Titus dominated one of the largest groups of gorillas ever recorded, reigning over 30 gorillas for almost 15 years. Though Dian Fossey and other researchers noted him for his calm leadership and happy demeanor, perhaps the most surprising aspects of Titus’ long and peaceful rule are the rather unorthodox conditions that surrounded his early development and adolescence. Indeed, Titus’s biography reaches almost Shakespearean pathos, and remains a truly gripping tale of the tragedies and victories of his majestic and endangered species.

At a young age, Titus befriended Beetsme, a gorilla who had joined his group as a lone adolescent, a rarely observed event. By the 1970s, poaching had become a deadly problem for the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains, claiming both Titus’s father and uncle. In the wake of this tragedy, Beetsme violently took control of the group by driving out Titus’s mother and sister. Faced with isolation, Titus turned to Beetsme, and the two formed a tight relationship. Soon Titus and Beetsme’s group was joined by a number of females, and, in another seemingly unprecedented event, the dominant Beetsme allowed Titus to remain. Beetsme’s benevolence toward Titus was somewhat betrayed, however, when Titus began secretly mating with the new females. Titus eventually conceived his first offspring, Kuryama, at a younger age than any other known gorilla. Titus has gone on to sire more offspring than any other mountain gorilla on record. View Titus’s family tree. In 1991, Titus gained control of the group in a largely peaceful overthrow of Beetsme, and began a 15-year reign as Gorilla King.

But no king can rule forever. In 2007, Titus’s own firstborn son, Kuryama, made a bid for dominance, engaging in secret liaisons with females just as his father had. Kuryama eventually divided the group into two factions. After a year of separation, the two groups reunited, with Titus gracefully becoming second in command.

Titus’s true gift to the world has been the amazing recorded history he left. He has provided an amazing picture of the complex behavioral psychology and often startling drama of the mountain gorillas.