Stories from Scientists
How Kusasi's cheek pads made him 'King' at Camp Leakey
by Graham Banes, Ph.D
I can only imagine what Tanjung Puting was like in 1978, a decade before I was born. Today, this National Park in Indonesian Borneo is a bustling tourist attraction, with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of visitors sailing hours upriver on motorized longboats, or kelotoks, before hauling themselves out into the jungle. They come to see the orang-utans, and largely at Camp Leakey, a former reintroduction and rehabilitation site for these endangered primates. It is, in many senses, spoiled by decades of exploitation – not least by these abundant Western tourists, many of whom take little notice of the rules that are there to protect all apes, both human and orange. On August 22nd 1978, however, the Camp was not overrun with Westerners. On that day, there was only one.
Gary Shapiro was the lone scientist at Camp Leakey when the boat arrived carrying Kusasi. As a lone infant orang-utan, who Shapiro estimated to be just 18 months old, Kusasi had undoubtedly been captured from the wild – his mother killed, her orphan taken for the pet trade. Fate had intervened in the form of the forestry department, whose officials had confiscated Kusasi from his captor and delivered him to Shapiro. Now safe among the humans at Camp Leakey, Kusasi would be slowly rehabilitated, taken out into the forest day by day, and gradually prepared for eventual release into the surrounding jungle. In the absence of his mother, humans were to raise him – a task that would take many years, and which rested on Biruté Galdikas, who had founded Camp Leakey in 1971. In her absence, Shapiro bundled Kusasi into a holding cage laden with fruit overnight. His first steps towards freedom would have to wait until morning.
By daybreak, however, Kusasi was gone. Shapiro concluded that he was dead. An adult female orang-utan, Siswoyo, had probably opened his cage. Incapable of survival alone, and wholly dependent on human caregivers, Kusasi was thought to have been taken by a bearded pig and dragged to his death in the forest. Reintroduction was never an easy process. There were risks. Devastated, Galdikas and Shapiro reported his death in a written report to the Indonesian government.
Time went on at Camp Leakey. Shapiro collected data for his scientific research — his pioneering studies of language acquisition, the first in orang-utans, earned him a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in 1985. His subjects — Pola, Princess, Rantai and Hampas — were ex-captive orang-utans that became his students, voluntarily learning American Sign Language deep in the wild in Tanjung Puting National Park. They ‘talked’ to Shapiro, describing the forest around them: ‘bird’, ‘bug’, ‘grass’. In time, they communicated their feelings and thoughts, and not least their demands: a banana, a mango; now. Some students were more focused than others. Princess, Shapiro's most dedicated student, communicated so extensively with Shapiro, and formed such a strong emotional bond, that Shapiro describes their connection as akin to that of a father and his child. Referring to Princess as his daughter caused a furore when he was called for jury service: Shapiro told the court that he had two children; one human, one orang-utan. The judge was not impressed. Shapiro was dismissed.
Over more than a year, Kusasi had faded into memory. After 18 months, however, Kusasi appeared: alive and well, in search of food, and ready to raid the Camp’s kitchen. I have often asked Shapiro how he felt when Kusasi returned: the thought provokes such emotion that I am yet to hear his organised thoughts. Confusion, it seems, was predominant — and then disbelief. Ultimately, both Galdikas and Shapiro were thrilled. Kusasi had survived — Kusasi was alive — and in time, Kusasi grew bigger. He first became an adolescent male, weighing little over a hundred pounds. Then, he tripled in size, morphing into a ‘flanged’ male, with large cheek pads characterising each side of his face. By 1995, Kusasi had become the dominant male at Camp Leakey – and, for more than a decade, until 2006 — Kusasi was ‘King’ of the Jungle. His predecessor, Yayat, was chased into the forest; his rivals quickly disappeared. Kusasi ruled over all others at Camp Leakey, revered and undisputed, and not only by his subjects. After a close encounter with Kusasi in 1992, the actress Julia Roberts declared that she would only ever address him as "Mr" Kusasi from thereon out. Kusasi’s story has been told repeatedly — in interviews, in books, and notably on film, in the 2005 PBS documentary, "Kusasi: From Orphan to King". The author Terry Pratchett was so enamoured when meeting Kusasi in 1994, that he returned in 2012 — despite suffering severely from Alzheimer’s disease — in the hope of seeing him one last time.
After studying orang-utans elsewhere in Tanjung Puting National Park, I climbed out of a kelotok at Camp Leakey on July 18th 2008. I was there to try and answer a question: why Kusasi had developed those cheek pads. Becoming dominant male, and developing such elaborate ornaments, was counter-intuitive in terms of natural selection. Charles Darwin had theorized that individuals typically develop traits that help them to survive – for dominant male orang-utans to grow large and conspicuous cheek pads is hardly an adaptive strategy. Not only are they cumbersome, these males have to eat more, and fight more: there has to be a trade-off. This might be explained by Darwin's other theory, sexual selection — that, though harmful to males’ survival —cheek pads are considered by females as attractive, and thus males enjoy greater reproductive success. Having been dominant for almost a decade, Kusasi provided a unique opportunity to empirically test this hypothesis. If Kusasi had fathered most of the offspring born at Camp Leakey during his tenure as dominant male, our hypothesis might be accepted — that cheek pads render males more attractive to females, resulting in greater paternities.
In the years that followed, I collected many hundreds of faecal samples from the orang-utans at Camp Leakey, extracting and analysing the DNA within them to facilitate paternity testing. What started out as a small undergraduate project at the University of Aberdeen grew into my Master's thesis at the University of Cambridge — and then, at the same institution, slowly became my doctorate. After eight years of work, and almost exactly seven years since I collected my first genetic sample — from a young orang-utan named Percy, on August 16th 2008 — our research has been published. Our findings, published September 1st in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, reveal that cheek-padded males do appear to be more reproductively successful: during his tenure as dominant male, Kusasi fathered substantially more offspring born at Camp Leakey than any of his rivals.
Today, Camp Leakey is devoid of Kusasi — he probably died in 2009, disappearing into the forest within a year of me beginning my research. His offspring, however, live on – including Percy, Princess’s third son, and one of Shapiro’s many orang-utan grandchildren. We would know none of this, however, without the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, from which I received the LP Jenkins Memorial Fellowship in 2012. The $1,000 I received to support my work came at a critical time, during a period of extreme financial hardship that threatened to end my studies. With the Foundation's support — and with the encouragement and friendship of its founders, Gary and Inggriani Shapiro — I was able to complete my research. I have since earned a place as one of only three Western researchers to earn a doctorate wholly from their studies of orang-utans at Camp Leakey, after Biruté Galdikas and Gary Shapiro himself.
The Orang Utan Republik Foundation has a distinct mission: to save the orang-utans of Indonesia through conservation education, outreach initiatives, and innovative collaborative programs that inspire and call people to action. It operates on the guiding principle that Indonesians must be empowered with the education and resources to conserve biodiversity for themselves, creating generations of new custodians of forests and the orang-utans within them. Having now studied orang-utans for the best part of a decade, I have seen first-hand the work that the Foundation has done to support and empower students, scientists and conservationists — of which I am one of many. I am grateful for the Foundation's support — and for yours, as members and donors — in cultivating a future for these endangered and critically endangered apes.
Dr Graham L Banes is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, a Postdoctoral Scientist at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, an Adjunct Professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a research associate at Madison's Henry Vilas Zoo. He also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Orang Utan Republik Foundation.