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Taking the monster out of 'King Kong'

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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.

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