King Kong vs. Gentle Gorilla

As the Godzilla vs. Kong movie opens globally tomorrow, let us investigate why people got gorillas so wrong initially, and how they started to realise the mistake.

History of Gorilla Fantasies

While Batwa “Pygmies” had coexisted with mountain gorillas in the rainforests of central Africa since time immemorial, the rest of the world took quite a bit longer. The first impression of our gentle giants was not favourable, demonstrated by this quote from 1861:

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.

John Speke

This was possibly the first mountain gorilla reference ever. Lowland gorillas were first described earlier and originally portrayed as fierce monsters; various sightings were recorded in English literature from 1625. It was naturalist Rev. Thomas Savage 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.

Richard Owen

He then added 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.

Richard Owen

Thomas 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. But Paul du Chaillu (see our featured illustration) added to that mythology in the late 19th century — because his publisher 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. King Kong‘s is a typical portrayal of gorillas as dangerous monsters, also found in other populist fiction of the Tarzan variety. As a result they were treated as wild game and shot accordingly.

Discovery and Protection of Mountain Gorillas

The mountain gorilla was not really discovered by the scientific community until 1902 when Friedrich Robert von Beringe shot two of them on the slopes of Mt Sabyinyo. In his description of the event 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.

Friedrich Robert von Beringe

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 it was successfully argued that the gorilla was one species with two sub-species. The mountain gorilla is thus called Gorilla gorilla beringei after the first well-connected man to shoot one…

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.

In the 1920s Carl Akeley (pictured above) encouraged the Belgian Government to set up a gorilla national park in the Virungas — though not before he shot five mountain gorillas for the American Museum of Natural History. He recorded that it took all his scientific ardour to keep from feeling like a murderer. His conclusion was that gorillas had so many likenesses to human beings that there was no telling how near they were to the dawn of intelligence.

After three years of lobbying Akeley won the support of King Albert of Belgium, after whom the new park was named. It was established in 1925 and comprised of Bisoke, Karisimbi and Mikeno volcanoes which Akeley estimated as having 150–200 gorillas. He died suddenly on the Virungas in 1926, aged 62, and his work was carried on by his second wife Mary Jobe Akeley. A noted anthropologist, she advised and assisted on the expansion of the park in 1929. In 1930 the English established a gorilla sanctuary on the Ugandan side of the Virunga Volcanoes. The Belgian park authorities were very reluctant to let anyone in their side while the English had a more relaxed attitude.

In the meantime zoos wanted live specimens, often infants. The resulting slaughter of adults was unforgivable, especially since the vast majority of infants died; collectors did not know how to keep them alive. Nor did most zoos, and their captive gorillas soon died in their iron-barred concrete cages of pneumonia and loneliness…

Interestingly it wasn’t until the 1930s that C. R. S. Pitman, Game Warden of Uganda, confirmed the gorillas’ presence in Bwindi. Everyone assumed that they were lowland gorillas but in the 1980s genetic research established that they were indeed mountain gorillas. Some parts of Bwindi were first gazetted in 1932 and it was eventually made a national park in 1991.