Thousands of years ago, orangutans were found throughout Southeast Asia. Today, the jungles of Borneo in Indonesia are among the few places that still harbor a significant population of these red apes. It was there, in 1976, that a baby orangutan named Kusasi was stolen by hunters who shot his mother.
Rescued by police, Kusasi was brought to Dr. Biruté Galdikas at Camp Leakey, the orangutan sanctuary and research center she founded in the early 1970s. Dr. Galdikas, the first biologist to extensively study orangutans, recognized something unusual about the new arrival: "Usually traumatized infants are squealing, trying to cling to the... person who most resembles Mother. ... Kusasi didn't behave in this way. ... What he did was, he escaped."
Kusasi disappeared from Camp Leakey and was presumed dead. Young orangutans need their mothers or a foster parent for the first 6 years of their life since they lack the strength and balance to forage for food in the forest canopy. To everyone's astonishment, Kusasi returned to Camp Leakey 18 months later, in good health and now 5 years old.
Kusasi's resilience continued and in 1995, at the age of 19, he developed impressively large cheek pads, a sign that a male orangutan has an abundance of testosterone to compete for dominance. Kusasi bulked-up in weight, and developed a throat pouch to support a booming call used to challenge other males. After several savage encounters, Kusasi defeated his major rival and became the dominant male of his territory.
Kusasi has remained king for a decade but is now under siege as younger males challenge his dominance. Will his reign come to an end?
To find out watch NATURE's From Orphan To King, airing Sunday, November 25 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check your local listings).
Web content originally posted on February 13th, 2005.
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