This orphaned orangutan accomplished something impossible.


His name is Kusasi, and he overcame incredible odds. Born in 1976 and kidnapped at just 2 years old after his mother was shot by wildlife traffickers. He was then smuggled into the illegal animal markets to be sold as a pet. For months he languished in a tiny crate, lacking the comfort and security that young orangutans so desperately need.


Yet this was just the beginning of Kusasi's amazing journey.

A few months after his capture, Indonesia made it illegal to own orangutans as pets. Police then raided the traffickers camp and rescued Kusasi from a sad life in captivity. 


Police transported him to what was the best place for any orphaned orangutan in the 1970's. That place was a research outpost in Borneo know as Camp Leakey, and the person who oversaw it was Dr. Birute Galdikas.


Dr. Galdikas was part of "The Trimates", which also included world famous primatologists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Dr. Goodall studied chimpanzees, Dr. Fossey studied mountain gorillas, and Dr. Galdikas studied the orangutans. These women all studied under the famous paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey.


Their groundbreaking research would thrust them into worldwide recognition for decades to come. They blurred the lines between animal and man, showing that great apes lived complex and emotional lives like us, experienced grief, used tools, and more. If there was any human Kusasi needed, it was Dr. Galdikas.


As soon as he arrived it was obvious he was different; the qualities of a leader were seen very early on.

Dr. Galdikas said Kusasi had this "glaze" in his eyes that none of the other orangutans shared.


At times it looked like Kusasi made seemingly strategic decisions that gave him a significant advantage over the others.


His first big decision came as soon as he arrived. Maybe it was his disdain for people or his longing for the forest he called home, but there was one thing on Kusasi's mind, and it was freedom. Dr. Galdikas recalls:


"As soon as he arrived, it was obvious Kusasi was different from all the other orphans."


"Normally, orphaned orangutans arrive at the camp screaming, traumatized, and trying to cling to anyone who resembles their mother. Kusasi didn't cling, he didn't squeal, what he did, was he escaped."


When we discovered Kusasi's crate was broken. The conclusion was that he was dragged out and killed by a pig."  


As tragic as this seemed, life in the camp moved on and the loss of a little orangutan was soon forgotten and overshadowed by the needs of other orphans. 


But over a year later, Kusasi sprang another surprise on everyone at Camp Leakey. 


"It was a rather routine day. We were all in camp when one of the assistants came up and said, "There is a strange infant orangutan hanging by the window outside."


Dr. Galdikas asked where the mother was. The assistant told her, "There is no mother, he is alone." What they realized next should have been impossible.


"Kusasi's return was the greatest miracle I ever experienced in camp, all kinds of things in that forest are absolutely dangerous, especially to a small baby orangutan", Dr. Galdikas recalls. 


"It was the human equivalent of taking a two year old toddler and putting them on the streets of London or New York and expecting them to survive on their own, and then finding them two years later still alive. That's how dramatic Kusasi's resurrection was." 


Yet there he stood.


Little did they know, Kusasi was ready to make his next big move.


He hung around the camp for a while, living among the other orphans and receiving basic daily care from the staff. Another big change happened when he decided he was going to choose a new surrogate mother, but not just any mother would do; he had his eyes set on the most dominant female in the area.


Everyday he would approach her to try to make contact.  She had other ideas, and was often found chasing him and lunging at him. Eventually, Kusasi's iron will and constant pestering broke through and she accepted. She became his teacher and companion for 2 years. 


Dr. Galdikas said, "And because she was the most dominant orangutan, it was like he was in the shadow of the empress, whenever she walked through the forest all the other orangutans would get out of her way"

By befriending the dominant female, he had access to all of the best things life had to offer. This made him stronger and gave him an advantage the others did not have. 


Eventually when he was 5, his surrogate mother had to move on, she was pregnant and Kusasi was again on his own. He not only survived, he thrived in the forest around the camp. As the years went by, he grew bigger and stronger. Finally in 1995 when he was 19 years old, he made the most dramatic transformation yet. 


Kusasi was now a full fledged adult, and ready to fight for dominance.


"When I left camp, Kusasi was still a sub-adult male, when I came back 3 months later, there was just this incredible transformation that had occurred. Kusasi had bulked up in size, he had muscles, and there was this confidence and serenity that he hadn't had when he was a sub-adult male. He was just absolutely magnificent", Dr. Galdikas recalls. 


His transformation was now complete. Somehow this tiny orphaned orangutan had survived the trauma of kidnapping, lived on his own, and was now poised for life as a king.


Here you can see Kusasi years after his transformation into a mature adult. He has extensive scarring on his cheek pads and forehead from multiple fights.   


Over the next several months he battled the dominant male several times, finally winning. For the 10 years he held his reign, he brought stability to the forest, fathered hundreds of offspring, and gave his family a sense of security and peace. 


Kusasi's story was so inspiring that even celebrities like Julia Roberts came to visit.


Screenshot from the documentary, "The Orangutan King"


When she slowly approached Kusasi, the encounter seemed harmless at first. Suddenly, he grabbed her and briefly held her. He may have just been playing, but rangers quickly intervened and without incident, they separated the two unharmed. 


She recalls the incredible encounter later: 


"I'm sort of vibrating from head to foot really, and I think in the sort of overwhelmed joyful sense keep bursting into tears now and then. I think it's just the raw thrill of an experience like that which I never could have fathomed. And it happened so fast, and he is so unbelievably strong." 


Kusasi was very gentle and caring with his orangutan family, but much like Cesar in the "Planet Of The Apes", he was indifferent and sometimes irritated with people. Julia's encounter was an incredible reminder of just how powerful he really was and why he deserved respect.  


Eventually, Kusasi's life played out as it has for most dominant males, he was overthrown by a rival named Tom, and now Kusasi has gone into retirement. 


Today he is 40. In the wild, orangutans can live 45 years. If he were human, his accomplishments would be the equivalent of a 2 year old baby raising himself and becoming a world leader. 


He may be an old man today, but he beat the odds and his life stands as a testament to the indelible spirit of nature, and if given a chance, can rise to remarkable heights.


If you want to learn more about Dr. Galdikas' work and The Orangutan Foundation International, visit them on the web.

Thomas Warner
Thomas Warner


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