Mountain Gorillas and King Kong

Illustration from the works of Paul du Chaillu
Illustration supporting the writings of Paul du Chaillu

Batwa “Pygmies” have coexisted with mountain gorillas in the rainforests of central Africa since time immemorial. Bantu peoples have known about them for centuries. But the rest of the world took a little bit longer, and first got it very wrong… Below is an excerpt from our award-winning Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook:

More formidable were monsters who could not converse with men and never showed themselves unless they saw a woman pass by, then, in voluptuous excitement, they squeezed them to death.

Those are the words from John Speke, from 1861, possibly the first mountain gorilla reference ever. Lowland gorillas were first described as a species in 1847 but the mountain gorilla was not discovered by the scientific community until 50 years later when Friedrich Robert von Beringe shot two of them on the slopes of Mt Sabinyo.

In his description of the event, they could only retrieve one corpse from a ravine after five hours. He added:

I was unable to determine its type; because of its size, it could not be a chimpanzee or a gorilla, and in any case the presence of gorillas had not been established in the area around the lakes.

He sent the skin and skeleton to Dr. Paul Matchie, University of Berlin, who identified it as a new species. He called it Gorilla gorilla beringei matchie but his name was removed after Dr. Coolidge argued successfully that the gorilla was one species with two sub-species; the lowland or western and mountain or eastern gorilla. The mountain gorilla is currently called Gorilla gorilla beringei, after the first recorded man to shoot one but not the first who recognised their uniqueness…

Gorillas were originally portrayed as fierce monsters; various sightings were recorded in English literature from 1625. It was naturalist Rev. Thomas Savage M.D. on the Gabon River in the 1840s, who made the first scientific effort. He collected skulls and sent them to Jeffries Wyman and Richard Owen, for identification.

Owen published the following totally inaccurate description:

They are extremely ferocious, and always offensive in their habits, never running away from man as does the Chimpanzee… It is said that when the male is first seen he gives a terrific yell that resounds far and wide through the forest, something like kh-ah! prolonged and shrill… The females and young at the first cry quickly disappear; he then approaches the enemy in great fury pouring out his cries in quick succession.
The hunter awaits his approach with gun extended; if his aim is not sure he permits the animal to grasp the barrel, and as he carries it to his mouth he fires; should the gun fail to go off, the barrel is crushed between his teeth, and the encounter soon proves fatal to the hunter.

Owen then adds another bit of fantasy:

Negroes when stealing through shades of the tropical forest become sometimes aware of the proximity of one of these frightful formidable apes by the sudden disappearance of one of their companions, who is hoisted up in the tree, uttering, perhaps, a short choking cry. In a few minutes, he falls to the ground a strangled corpse.

Savage was far more down to earth. When he sought information from local people he rejected stories of gorillas kidnapping beautiful young maidens and defeating elephants in single combat. Paul du Chaillu (see the illustration) and Ballantyne added to the mythology in the late 19th century. Du Chaillu has been since found to be fairly credible; it was his publisher who wanted the text to become more exciting.

And so it went on, these and new stories were reported and repeated so often they became seen as the truth. Typical is the portrayal of gorillas as fearsome savage monsters in the many films about King Kong and populist fiction of the Tarzan variety. As a result they were treated as wild game and shot accordingly.

Natural History museums also wanted their own skeletons and expeditions went hunting in the name of science. It is estimated that 54 gorillas were shot for this reason between 1902 and 1925 (excluding the unknown number shot for sport). For instance Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, who led a Swedish Zoological Expedition, relates that he shot 14 in 1921–2. When this became public it caused an outcry; but he was one of the first to recommend to King Albert that gorillas be protected.

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