Taking the monster out of 'King Kong'

Baby seals and white whales are so much "cuter" than huge 500-pound gorillas that they have tended to attract more attention from amateur conservationists. But all around the world, concerned zookeepers, naturalists, and professional conservationists are worried that the gorilla may not survive the 20th century unless our contemporary society takes drastic measures to protect this largest of the great apes from an encroaching civilization that utilizes the gorilla, or parts of him, for food, spectacle, witchcraft, trophies, and -- most gruesome of all --ash trays. The few gorillas left in the world are in danger of having their hands cut off for ash trays, even though in Africa they sell for only $20.

That possibility, incredibly callous as it may seem, is one of the things pointed out in one of National Geographic Society's most compelling specials of the year: "Gorilla" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings).

Written, produced, and directed by Barbara Jampel, "Gorilla" intersperses charming and eccentric segments with purely scientific episodes. There are segments with Englishman John Aspinall, who runs a wildlife sanctuary near Caterbury, in which he plays with gorillas is if he were one of them. and there is Dr. Penny Patterson, who is teaching two lowland gorillas the American Sign Language of the Deaf. Her famous gorilla Koko has a working vocabulary of 450 signs. And there is the sad tale of Dr. Dian Fossey, a research scientists who lived among the gorillas in Rwanda for more than 10 years, only to see her favorite, Digit, killed by poachers.

A disheartened Dr. Fossey left Africa. However, a new mountain-gorilla project in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park is trying to educate the native population to the value of safeguarding the few remaining gorillas.

One of the problems involved in conserving the world's gorilla population is the fact that often gorilla mothers do not know how to take care of their young -- especially those in captivity. Only about 150 captive-born gorillas exist on the world today, and most zoos must remove the infant from his mother in order to protect him, even though that is not ordinarily the conservationist's way.

But many extraordinary measures are necessary, according to this extraordinary film, in order to make the world safe for gorillas -- and humans.

"Gorilla" features some amazing footage by a team of talented photographers, focusing on gorilla-people (those who make the survival of the species an integral part of their lives) as well as gorilla-gorillas. The film clips from "King Kong" are amusing phony, but the clips from the old Johnson film "Congorilla" make you want to see the whole thing. Perhaps National Gegraphic and WQED/Pittsburgh can convince underwriter Gulf Oil to sponsor a complete airing of this early classic wild-life film.

"Gorilla" succeeds in its main effort to make viewers conscious of the need to work for the survival of this endangered species. But it also succeeds as a fascinating "info-tainment," a word now coming into usage among TV programmers but which sends shudders down my semantic spine.

In other words, you'll enjoy while you learn.

"Gorilla" takes the monster out of "King Kong." It turns him into an international treasure on the edge of extinction.

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