The King of the Jungle – Kusasi (Kalimantan)

Meeting the King of the Jungle in Kalimantan, Indonesia


I was just given a book on Orangutans. I love my book so much. It brought me back to my travels to Indonesia where I spent time with the orangutans in their jungle.

I had an experience with one orangutan in particular called Kusasi. He was orphaned as a baby, found in the jungle and brought to the Camp Leaky in the Tanjung Putting National Park, Indonesia. He was known as the sweetest infant. He was trusting and gentle and so friendly. He really had no killer, jungle instinct.

He ran away and was presumed dead.  His story started after he showed up 18-months after leaving Camp Leaky. He was recognized as the missing Kusasi. He had made it.  Beating every odd against him with years of battles, wit and determination, he fought off many alpha males and became the king of the jungle.

The first time I saw this 35-year old enormous male, he was coming up behind me in the jungle. I was told to back up and move aside as he passed me. I think I was mesmerized as I had just watched a film about him. It was almost as if the cue card told him to join me in the jungle as soon as the film ended.

I watched and wanted to get near him. I had been playing with others and holding hands of some of his fellow playmates but it was not allowed to get near Kusasi. Julia Roberts had filmed a documentary with Kusasi a few years prior but I was no actress, did not have money and would not be awarded the same privileges… so I thought. I had remembered seeing it and thought she was so lucky to touch him.

I stayed at Camp Leaky for just 4 days but each day was amazing. Every day I seemed to get closer to Kusasi. I remember getting on my hands and knees talking to him from afar. We stared eye to eye and I told him how much I respected him. I said I was in awe of his plight to overcome all odds against him in the wild jungle. I said to him, “Like you I am on my own and I have survived too”. I swear I think he understood me.

With each conversation, he inched closer as did I. There was much less gap between us with every encounter. Staff were amazed at the progress I was making to win over his trust. This led to my final determination on my last day that I had to touch this gentle beast. (I saw him as gentle in the eyes), however, he surely could have ripped off my limbs.

My last day, he lay on his belly and extended his arms out to me with his palms up. I looked at the staff with pleading eyes and said please let me approach him. With me in the middle just behind two guards, one armed, we cautiously approached as Kusasi followed with a watchful eye.  I knelt and placed my hand in his.

It was such a moment. It was the highest honor. People watched from the sidelines in a semi-circle as if we were performing for a crowd on the Santa Monica Promenade. People were quiet and still some with their hand over their mouth as if impending doom was to strike.

I stroked Kusasi’s leathery hand. Years of strength, fighting and survival were felt with each stroke. I think I was in disbelief. He then grasped my hand. It was like a hand closing in on mine that could have crushed each small bone in my fingers. Such strength!!!

He started to pull and I could tell he wanted to play. His play could have been my death. I somehow was quiet and calm as the guards yelled No, No, No Kusasi… Stop!  As quickly as it started it stopped. Calm fell amongst us and again I continued to stroke this orange, furry human like primate.

We backed away and I thanked him for the greatest honor of my life. Tears fell down my face as I gained the trust of a beautiful animal that the jungle feared.

Thank you for bringing it all back!


Elisa Kotin

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