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Legendary Silverback Titus Dies

September 2009

Legendary Silverback Titus Dies

Silverback TitusOn the morning of Sept. 14, Fossey Fund trackers at the Karisoke Research Center found legendary silverback 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” for the PBS Nature series.

Observers believe that his death was hastened by persistent challenges from his son Umushikirano – called “Rano” by the staff.

Titus “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."

Titus’ last few weeks were trying. Just a few weeks ago, his 17-year-old son Rano returned after two years as a lone silverback. 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 toward female Tuck, despite Titus’ protests (expressed in “pig grunts”) and Tuck’s indifference. Titus and his followers then began to travel every day in an attempt to throw off the intruder, but Rano followed them doggedly, keeping Titus on the move for several weeks. However, starting last week, Titus became weak and the group stopped traveling. Titus remained in his nest, eating and moving very little.

At 7 a.m. on the 14th, the Karisoke field team brought in veterinarian Dr. Magdalena Braum from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to assess Titus’ health, but he was found dead in his nest, with 4-year-old Ihumure at his side and no sign of the other group members. The rest of the day proved very eventful. Ihumure’s mother had left the group in the spring and Titus was helping to care for him, so staff were especially concerned about him.

Grooming TitusAt 9:30 a.m. Rano, and other group members – males Urwibutso, Turakora and Pato – were located about 100 meters away from Titus and they continued moving around the site of Titus. The group appeared to be very stressed. At 10:30 a.m., the only female of the group, Tuck, with her juvenile son Segasira, were located moving independently, clearly avoiding the four males. Tuck also appeared very stressed.

At 12:40 the males arrived at Titus’ site, led by Rano. They all sat down few meters from Titus. The blackback Turakora approached Titus’ body, touching his back and smelling him. The other two blackbacks sat two meters away. Rano was also looking at Titus and for a few minutes nobody displayed. They spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon very close to Titus’ location.

After this, the males moved a few meters away from Titus, led by Pato and Urwibutso, as if searching for Ihumure, who was now feeding and resting just a few meters away. Rano started displaying and making calling vocalizations but Ihumure avoided all contact. They males started eating and resting and after an hour they approached Titus’ body again, resting about 10 meters away. Rano was still vocalizing frequently.

Tuck and her son Segasira were about 200 meters away; she was scared of the trackers’ presence and visibly stressed. She could hear the displays and the calling vocalizations of Rano but was avoiding them and changing direction. She moved in circles the entire morning but then moved back to the Titus site and sat a few meters from the old silverback, looking at him. When she heard the four males approaching she quickly moved away.

For the rest of the day Tuck moved around the site and at 3 p.m. trackers decided to leave her so as to avoid any further stress. It was also decided to leave Titus’ body in the forest overnight. The presence of his body is likely important for group cohesiveness at this time.

Titus is known to be the father of Turakora and Rano (from DNA analyses) and presumed to be the father of Pato and Urwibutso (he was the dominant male at the time of their conception and had close relationships with their mothers Shangaza and Tuck respectively). Urwitbutso and Segasira are brothers.

Our main concern at the moment is that young Ihumure should not remain alone. Despite being already weaned, he has been sharing a nest regularly with Titus since his mother Bukima transferred to another group in March of this year. He was also showing signs of illness over the past two weeks, perhaps caused by head trauma received during the recent frequent interactions with other groups since the return of Rano and also fatigue from the constant travel.

History and background of Titus

Titus’ eventful life began in 1974, observed by Dian Fossey and her research assistant Kelly Stewart, daughter of actor Jimmy Stewart. Stewart 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 a group Dian Fossey called Group Four, led by Titus’ father, Uncle Bert. Fossey noted in Gorillas in the Mist that Titus as an infant seemed to be “underdeveloped and spindly” and had difficulty breathing. He soon overcame these disabilities, the first of many challenges he faced in childhood.

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, 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 favored by Papoose, the dominant female.

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 elder’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.

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

A British crew filmed “Gorilla King” just before Kuryama’s departure. The film was shown by the BBC in the United Kingdom and on the PBS series “Nature” in the United States, in 2008. Titus was immortalized on film while still strong, but at a turning point in his career.

Now, with the return of Rano came a new challenge, and this time Titus, at the advanced age of 35, was unable to prevail. We will be watching the remains of Titus’ group very carefully now, to see how the group will re-orient itself, with special attention paid to the fate of young Ihumure.
Data collected by: Research Assistant Theodette Gatesire; Head Tracker Titus group Francois Nyizemana and Field Data Coordinator John Ndajambaye
Report prepared by: Veronica Vecellio, Gorilla Program Coordinator, and DFGFI staff
Field staff composed of members from Titus, Bwenge and Anti-poaching teams:
Rano and the blackbacks: Theodette Gatesire (Research Assistant), Jean de Dieu Habumugisha, Nsengiyumva Esdras.
Ihumure site: Francois Nyizeymana, Magdalena Braum (Vet MGVP)
Tuck: John Ndajambaje, Saidi Kubwimana, Iyamuremye Jean de Dieu
Phocus Nsenga and Ildephonse Gatete from Anti-poaching joined the field teams to provide extra support.