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Orangutan Odyssey Hardcover – 1 Oct 1999
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More than three decades ago the legendary palaeonthropologist Louis Leakey encouraged a trio of remarkable women scientists--Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas--to study the world's great primates. In her memoir Reflections of Eden, written long after her fellow "trimates" published theirs, Galdikas described her efforts at Camp Leakey to rehabilitate ex-captive orang-utans and release them into the Borneo rainforest nearby.
Those rehabilitation efforts are at the centre of the controversies now swirling around Galdikas and the organisation she helped found, Orang-utan Foundation International. An ongoing debate about the effectiveness of rehabilitation reached fever pitch in the late 1990s with the publication of several articles and books about Galdikas by Canadian novelist Linda Spalding. In A Dark Place in the Jungle Spalding suggests that Galdikas's efforts in the name of conservation may in fact harm wild orang-utan populations. Galdikas herself is characterised as an imperious and careless scientist, which no doubt played a role in Galdikas's decision in July 1999 to sue Spalding for libel.
What then is one to make of this book by Galdikas and her long-time collaborator Nancy Briggs? There is no dispute whatsoever about their primary message: orang-utans are seriously endangered. Palm oil plantations, bush fires and other intense human pressures are destroying millions of acres of orang-utan habitat. The recently deposed Indonesian government of Suharto was notoriously corrupt and adopted policies that led to large-scale deforestation, although its legacy is treated gingerly by Galdikas, who lives there when she isn't teaching at the University of British Columbia. The close-up photographs that accompany their text show orang-utans as full of personality, mischief and devotion as humans. Perhaps, as Spalding suggests, that's part of the problem. It may be too easy to project anthropocentric values onto orang-utans, which, after all, share 97% of their genetic heritage with humans.
It is difficult to judge either case on its merits since the books share similar flaws; neither presents notes or bibliography to document their arguments. The gravely threatened orang-utans deserve as much attention as they can get. --Pete Holloran
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