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Kusasi rises to become the dominant male orangutan in From Orphan to King.
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Ruling by fear
Throughout Kusasi's reign, he has fought hard for the right to mate. Click on photo to play.

Is Kusasi still King? That's what viewers of NATURE's FROM ORPHAN TO KING may be wondering.

The film documents Kusasi's decades-long rise to power, from an orphaned baby to the hulking, dominant male in the forests around Camp Leakey, the orangutan sanctuary and research center in the Indonesian island of Borneo. Through a series of often brutal battles with other males, Kusasi becomes the chief "cheekpad" -- a male orangutan who displays thick facial pads, the result of ample supplies of testosterone. As king, Kusasi wins the favor of the forest's female orangutans and fathers a number of children. Females often answer his calls, and his presence silences rival males.

At the end of the film, however, Kusasi is under siege. Forest fires and logging have destroyed orang habitats, so dominant males from these areas are entering Kusasi's territory. In addition, younger males have come of age in the forest and are challenging his reign. After one particularly brutal fight, an injured Kusasi has to be sedated so a veterinarian can treat and stitch his wounds.

So what's happened to Kusasi in the year or more since the film was completed? Biruté Galdikas says he appears to be hanging on to some power -- barely. "The story is quite complicated," she says. "He has relationships and rivalries with a number of other males."

One of the challengers is a previously unknown male named Win. According to researchers at Orangutan Foundation International, Win once climbed into a tree to fight Kusasi. The two, locked in combat, fell 30 feet to the ground. Both carry scars from the aerial encounter.

Kusasi was challenged by a previously unknown orangutan male named Win.
Kusasi was challenged by a previously unknown orangutan male named Win.
Such daring, repeated attacks eventually won Win a partial victory over Kusasi. "Basically, they stay out of each other's way now," says Galdikas. "If one is around, the other will stay away."

But Win's achievement appears to be short-lived. Another ambitious young male has appeared on the Camp Leakey scene, and he seems to have leaped over Win in the dominance hierarchy, Galdikas says. This new challenger, however, "is still terrified of Kusasi; he just looks at him and runs for his life." Still, Galdikas is convinced that the youngster will eventually take the throne. "He's just biding his time until Kusasi goes away or gets worn down," she says.

Time is clearly not on Kusasi's side. But predicting the future king is difficult. Male orangutans are solitary animals, and can drop out of sight for years at a time. Kusasi, for instance, once disappeared into the forest for more than a decade, only to reappear and ultimately win dominance. Somewhere in the forest, there may be another unknown champion biding his time.

By observing such power struggles, researchers gain important insights into orangutan behavior. For instance, female orangutans also have a hierarchy. Sometimes it seems to be based on age or size -- but not always. So researchers are working hard to understand how the pecking order is decided. Ultimately, such information may aid conservationists trying to protect orangutans from extinction and help these magnificent animals bounce back from population losses.

This article was originally posted on February 13th, 2005.

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