Theo’s friendship with King Kusasi…and how they shared a brotherly drink
It was in the year 2000 when I met Kusasi, one of the most memorable characters in the natural world. He rose from a rescued orphan orangutan to king of the jungle around Camp Leakey in Tanjung Punting National Park located in the southern part of Borneo.
To get there I had rented a houseboat. Before we left the harbor of Pangkalan Bun we had to do some shopping for the next 3 weeks. We, that is my guide with the funny name “No” and our young captain. I do not want to bore you with my grocery list. I let my guide No do the shopping and decide what to buy. (By the way he also served in a double function as a cook). I literally eat everything. I have no fashion diseases like gluten allergies and I am also not a vegan or vegetarian. So no problem for No to buy whatever he wanted. I just came along, carried the bags and noticed with great satisfaction that he purchased tons of garlic. I love garlic. When we were done with the groceries we had to make one more important stop and get some cases of beer. After that we were on our way along the coast and then up the Sekonyer River into the mysterious jungle. Far upstream we turned into the very narrow Camp Leakey River until we finally reached our destination – the wooden pier at Camp Leakey, the famous orangutan research and rehabilitation center founded by Biruti Galdikas, one of the 3 great ape biologists next to Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. This was our anchor place for the next 3 weeks. And what a place this was!
Already on my first day I saw many orangutans: orphans, mothers with babies, young adult males – and last not least the king of the jungle, Kusasi, the powerful dominant male of the area. While normally only staying for a few days near Camp Leakey (he has a large territory to check) Kusasi had decided to spend all 3 weeks with me. We “klicked” right away and formed an unusual friendship. The kitchen staff at the research station had to give him a huge bowl of boiled rice every morning. This prevented Kusasi from tearing the door off the frame and entering the kitchen to help himself without waiting to be seated. He had obviously served himself in this manner a few times before. Every morning he sat in front of the kitchen building and ate his bowl of rice. And I joined him. I didn’t touch his rice, I just sat in front of him and watched and photographed him just an arm length away. After a few days the cook told me that Kusasi really must like me. Why? Well, she said, the last photographer who was so close to him ended up in the bushes. She described how Kusasi had grabbed him and threw him single-armed over his shoulder into the bushes behind him. Then he continued eating his rice. I must admit I would have liked to hear this info a few days earlier. Although from then on a bit timid around him I never experienced a free flight into the bushes. I said earlier: We somehow klicked!
For three solid weeks I lived in paradise. In the mornings I woke up by such a wonderful mix of jungle sounds that it put the “Sound of Music” to shame. Singing gibbons, mixed with the hum of myriad of insects and the croaking of frogs. Never since have I been in a tropical jungle with such an ear pleasing and soul touching melody.
During the day when I was sometimes exploring the jungle by myself I occasionally met other tourists who looked surprised to see me walking alone. “Don’t you have a guide?” My answer “ Yes, No, he is back at the boat” always confused them. They probably thought I was just another nutcase tourist.
Only a few disturbing events happened. One evening my captain urgently whispered into my ear that we had to leave Camp Leakey quickly. When I asked why, he said: Loggers! We then floated down the Camp Leakey River to a very small side arm where we could hide the houseboat. Around midnight I was woken up by the tuktuktuk of a boat motor. Through a gap in the foliage I saw a barge floating by pulling hundreds of tropical tree trunks. No whispered these were all illegally logged inside Tanjung Putting National Park. The loggers didn’t want to be seen. They were supposedly not happy when someone watched what they were doing. The next morning we tuckered back to our pier at Camp Leakey.
15 years ago there was still the old wooden observation tower right next to the pier. Scientists had not used it for a long time but the orangutans loved to climb up all the way to the platform and sometimes spend the night there. Kusasi loved this place as well as he had a wonderful view over his realm from up there. One night he slept on top of the tower. And this night I will never forget, as it was one of the most touching experiences I ever had in nature.
My beer was long gone and I had found a decent supply of home brew rice wine in the camp. As the sun set, I greatly enjoyed half a bottle of rice wine while listening to the jungle music and looking up at Kusasi who was sitting on the stair case leading up to the observation platform. I was lying on deck of the houseboat under a mosquito net. Before going to sleep I put the cork back on the half full bottle of rice wine and put it right next to me behind the mosquito net. Then suddenly while I was in deep sleep I was woken up by such a powerful sound that it made my heart stop. It was Kusasi pushing out a sound out of his powerful lungs that made your back hair go up. I have never heard anything like this before. If I had to describe this sound I would call it a mix between a goose-pimple causing wolf haul and the frightening growl of a tiger. Simply wonderful, stunning and scary all at the same time! It was almost like Kusasi knew I was leaving the next day. Maybe he wanted to say good-bye. You will not believe that it is the truth what I am about to write. But trust me: It is the truth! The next morning while I was waking up to the melody of the jungle again I saw a giant paw followed by a powerful hairy arm reaching for my rice wine bottle. Kusasi grabbed the bottle, with his teeth pulled the cork out of the neck and spit it into the river – like a scene in one of John Wayne’s macho Western movies – and finished MY rice wine in one large gulp. Then he set the bottle back down next to me, turned around and walked down the pier towards the kitchen where a big bowl of rice was waiting for him.
Since my time with Kusasi much has changed. Not only is there a new sheriff in town (= dominant male). Also vast tracks of jungle have disappeared around the Sekonyer River and given space to palm oil plantations. My wife Jami is there right now, photographing the disastrous forest fires that have been raging on Borneo for some time now and the threat that orangutans are facing due to habitat loss caused by the constant extension of palm oil plantations. Please follow her blogs. It is very important that something will be done very soon and very effectively. Otherwise one of the last 3 great ape species will disappear for ever within our lifetime.
Loved reading about your adventure, Theo!
Thanks, Ally! From now on Jami will keep you updated on the current situation with the orangutans in Indonesia.