Gorillas star in their own "reality show"

It was only just a few months ago that Czechs were first introduced - some would say subjected to - reality TV. In late summer two new programmes hit the commercial stations, Big Brother and the then lesser-known VyVoleni (The Selected), drawing a great deal of media attention. Millions have now tuned in - and a great number of young viewers watch regularly - but others were turned-off from the start, either unimpressed or offended by the exploits of the shows' overnight celebrities. Until now. A new reality show begun this month by Czech Radio has grabbed many of these viewers' attention, a show that can be said to be "truly different", even at first glance. The reason? The stars of the programme are gorillas.

The show, called Odhaleni - Unmasking, was put together by Czech Radio in connection with public broadcaster Czech TV. On November 7th a total of sixteen cameras began monitoring the exploits of four gorillas at Prague Zoo, and will continue taping and broadcasting on the internet for the next two months. Just like in other reality shows, viewers can tune in to see daily clips, or live action, and, just like in Big Brother or The Selected, one can send in phone text messages in support of their favourite star. Petr Fejk, the director of Prague Zoo, describes some of the gorillas on the show:

"Shinda is fourteen and Kijivu is twelve, both are female gorillas sent back to Europe from Melbourne, Australia, where they spent their youth. After they came out of puberty and reached adulthood, the coordinator for gorilla breeding in Europe decided the apes should return. At the Prague Zoo they were joined by Richard, a so-called silver-back, a dominant male, who quickly became the leader of the group."

Richard and Kijivu mated and a year ago Kijivu gave birth to her first baby - Moja - the only gorilla ever born in captivity in the Czech Republic. Even now experts aren't quite sure whether Moja is a boy or a girl, although the zoo's director Petr Fejk says some zoo visitors have their minds made up:

Petr Fejk
"Some visitors who have come to the zoo think that we've been making things up! They come forward with photographs they've taken that they think clearly show or prove that Moja has a penis, that he's a male! But, with gorillas it's not that simple. It's not that easy to recognise, so you have to take different steps, in this case a DNA test. Right now we're planning on sending samples from Moja's fur, as well as stool samples for to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether he's a boy - or a girl."

As the only baby in the group in Odhaleni, Moja is the only gorilla not in official competition. That might seem a little unfair, since anyone who has tuned in will have noticed he is often the liveliest of the bunch, though the others are no slouches either.

At this point who knows who will steal the show?

Viewers can vote for their favourite gorilla and in the end the winner will walk off - well not really walk off - he or she will be given 12 melons. Clearly, a lot is at stake. Why melons? In the other reality shows 'melons' are all we've been hearing about for weeks and it's not what you might think: in Czech slang, 'meloun' or the plural 'melouni' mean "millions", as in millions in cash.

Of course, many comparisons have been made between the gorillas and their human counterparts. Who's bossy? Who's nice? Who's willing to bare it all?

In Odhaleni, Richard, weighing in at over 200 kilos, could be the front-runner. But, like his human counterparts in other reality shows, he can also be hard-headed. His keeper, Marek Zdansky, explains Richard sometimes really digs in his heels.

"When our scale was working he purposely refused to go near it. So we only get to measure him once in a while. Last time, he weighed in at 208 kilos. When the scale was broken he lounged all over it. Now that it's fixed he stays away."

The female gorillas also occasionally also get into occasional tussles: not long ago they got into a bit of a fight and Moja - the baby - apparently only just out of their path. Tempers can occasionally run high, and according to Marek Zdansky, even presenting the eventual winner with his prize in a few months time may prove difficult:

"We can't send the gorillas into the pen one at a time, [for the winner to claim the prize for everyone to see: those left out would be confused and would act up and would scream. They're used to the fact that in the pen each has his place and they're fed by the keeper who hands them their food. Handing out the melons could be a difficult riddle to solve. We haven't solved the problem yet."

The Prague Zoo, under Petr Fejk, has gained a remarkably high profile in recent years, deservedly, for projects introducing magnificent new pavilions, improving conditions for animals, and making the zoo more user-friendly. But, in the case of reality TV when he was approached by Czech Radio, he still took some persuading: it was only a promise that proceeds would go towards a project in Africa to save gorillas in the wild that a deal was clinched. Since then, Odhaleni has proved to be a huge marketing success, Countless organisations reported on the apes worldwide. Thanks to Odhaleni, viewers can now tune in to learn more about gorillas and stay longer than they ever would in the park. The head of Czech Radio's science station (Leonardo) Miroslav Bobek indicates the project is already a success:

"Reaction has been extensive and most of it is good. 95 percent of visitors in on-line discussions have greeted the programme favourably and are very excited about it. [Our gorilla reality show] made headlines worldwide, and stories were aired on many stations, including, for example, Fox News in the US. Czech expatriates take part in on-line discussions too, having heard about the show through the news. While we haven't recorded a final number of visitors at the website yet, our estimate now is that website viewings number in the tens of thousands."

The website - www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni/ offers many different features, including, audio, live camera and edited clips, games, and profiles of the "contestants". Information is available in both English and Czech. Readers, for example, can learn how long gorillas live, about their moods, and that gorillas need fresh branches to eat. I, for example, watched for fifteen minutes one day as Richard peeled and chewed on bark, even as I ate my own lunch in the office by the computer screen. He probably has better manners! On the other hand, I don't put up quite as much a fight in getting up on the scale.

Of the three reality shows currently on offer in the Czech Republic, each has a distinctive flavour: VyVoleny on TV Prima is more about friendships and getting arguments, while Big Brother on TV Nova has been - to a large extent - about sex.

But, only Odhaleni has gorillas, and little Moja, he alone is worth the 'price of admission'.

When the Odhaleni cameras turn off in 2006 the gorillas' lives in the zoo will of course continue pretty much as normal. But at least we will have gotten to know them: our close cousins at the Prague Zoo, the great apes.

Watch Odhaleni at www.rozhlas.cz/odhaleni/english