King Kong to the rescue

The over-sized ape and the director of his blockbuster movie have joined a campaign to save mountain gorillas

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In the epic new Hollywood blockbuster, King Kong is the last of his kind. Transported from his natural habitat and left to swipe at fighter jets swooping around him at the top of the Empire State building, the giant ape faces a pitiful death.

That is, of course, fiction, as seen at the end of Peter Jackson's acclaimed remake of the classic 1930s film. But a remarkable spin-off from the award-winning director's movie has been a boost for efforts to save a rather more real species from extinction.

Jackson, who spent £200m on reshooting the classic girl-meets-gorilla tale, is backing attempts to save the planet's last great apes. When the DVD of King Kong is released later this month, Jackson plans to include a documentary film about the plight of the mountain gorilla in central Africa, whose numbers have been decimated by poachers, trophy hunters and loss of natural habitat.

He is backing work by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme to save the last remaining mountain gorillas. Charity premieres of the new film have already raised more than $100,000 for environmental projects to help keep the species going.

With further talks scheduled between Jackson and animal welfare groups, there is increasing optimism that greater public awareness of the gorillas' plight - there are thought to be fewer than 1,000 of them left - will lead to a worldwide campaign to prevent extinction.

Amid predictions that the last mountain gorilla will die within three decades, other leading Hollywood figures have joined the campaign. Andy Serkis, who plays Kong in the Jackson movie, has recently become a trustee of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, an organisation established by the campaigner in 1978 and renamed to honour her memory after she was murdered, probably by poachers, in 1985.

Mr Serkis told The Independent on Sunday: "The original King Kong film did a lot of damage to the reputation of gorillas and there was a big upsurge in gorilla hunting after that film.

"The tragedy of Kong is that the story is not too far removed from the truth, in that he is the last of his kind. I intend to make gorilla conservation part of what I do from now on."

While his talks with conservation groups have remained private until now, Jackson signalled his commitment to the campaign at the British premiere of King Kong, saying in a video message to the audience: "Gorillas are truly amazing animals - without them there wouldn't be entertainment like King Kong. It's really vital that we take this opportunity to realise how similar they are to us, and how endangered they are."

He added: "There are only 706 mountain gorillas left: that is like the population of a small village in a world of six and a half billion people. I'd like to invite everyone to support the work that the International Gorilla Conservation Progamme is doing, not just for the sake of gorillas, but for the people who live alongside them, and so that future generations can live in a world where gorillas are more than a memory."

Stars including Sigourney Weaver and Christian Bale have backed the campaign, while members of the crew of King Kong are understood to have joined an adopt-a-gorilla scheme.

Chris Cutter, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told the IoS: "The earth's great apes, including mountain gorillas, are facing global extinction within the next 50 years. If Peter Jackson were to keep throwing his full weight behind the conservation efforts, he would become the issue's 900lb gorilla."

Yet another danger looms for the species. The Independent on Sunday can reveal that, as well as facing the ongoing threat from poachers, initial data from a survey carried out in the Congo - one of the main habitats for gorillas - has confirmed conservationists' worst fears: that the Ebola virus may be spreading among the few that remain.

Researchers working in Odzala National Park, a Unesco reserve once home to an estimated 30,000 western lowland gorillas, were shocked to discover that the virus had reached the 13,600 sq km reserve.

Jefferson Hall, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: "Parts of the park where gorillas used to live are now empty of them. It is absolutely a conservation crisis - an emergency. The population has been seemingly decimated."

Stephen Blake, a researcher who spent months studying the scale of the problem, added: "Our preliminary data suggests that Ebola has had a major impact on the gorillas of Odzala. It doesn't look good at all."

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