A Dark Place in the Jungle: Science, Orangutans, and Human Nature

A Dark Place in the Jungle: Science, Orangutans, and Human Nature

by Linda Spalding

In A Dark Place in the Jungle, writer Linda Spalding travels to Borneo's threatened jungles on the trail of orangutan researcher Birute galdikas. What she finds is an unholy mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, descendants of Dayak headhunters, Javanese gold miners, and half-tame orangutans.

Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and

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In A Dark Place in the Jungle, writer Linda Spalding travels to Borneo's threatened jungles on the trail of orangutan researcher Birute galdikas. What she finds is an unholy mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, descendants of Dayak headhunters, Javanese gold miners, and half-tame orangutans.

Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Formed the famed trio of "angels" Louis Leakey encouraged to study great apes in the wild In 1971, she went into the jungle to study orangutans and decades later emerged with a rundown empire crumbling around her. Along the way, as poachers and timber barons slaughtered orangutans by the hundreds, Galdikas evolved into Ibu, the great mother of orphan orangutans, blurring the line between ape and human, tourist and scientist, Eden and everything else. To the orangutans, this was perhaps the cruelest blow of all.

Spalding's quest takes her from the offices of Galdika's foundation in Los Angeles to the crocodile-infested Sekonyer River in Borneo, where she confronts the sad, corrupting failure of a woman trying desperately to mother a species to survival; the dangers and temptations of ecotourism; and the arrogance of the human inclination to alter the things we set out to save.

Here is a book that shows us no paradise is safe from the machinations of man, and no one immune to temptation.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, Ecco, 1996) describes how a suggestion from a publisher sent her off on an adventure, ostensively to discover the truth about a mysterious woman studying orangutans in Borneo but in reality to explore truths about herself. The Canadian title of this book, The Follow, more accurately captures the spirit of a book in which the supposed subject, primatologist Birute Galdikas, virtually never appears. After a semi-comic attempt to interview an indifferent Galdikas in California, Spalding and her daughters traveled to Kalimantan to visit Camp Leakey. Through meetings with local officials and associates of Galdikas, she gained some impression of the problems of deforestation, pollution, and the trade in captive orangutans. The book succeeds as a haunting account of a despoiled "Eden" but not as a journalistic account of Galdikas's activities in Borneo. Everyone seems to have an opinion about her, but none of it seems to add up. This is an important issue, given allegations that Galdikas has attempted to raise and rehabilitate orphaned orangutans in substandard conditions. Galdikas's own autobiography, Reflections of Eden (LJ 12/94), presumably doesn't tell the whole story, but neither does this book. Recommended primarily for travel/natural history collections. [The finished book will include an epilog, not seen by reviewer, containing excerpts of Indonesian government reports alleging the mistreatment of orangutans and the misuse of funds by Galdikas.--Ed.]--Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Spalding follows orangutan researcher Birut<'e> Galdikas to Borneo's threatened jungles to discover a mix of foreign scientists, government workers, tourists, loggers, and half-tame orangutans vying for control of the jungle. Galdikas began studying orangutans in the wild in 1971. As poachers and timber barons slaughtered the orangutans by the thousands, she became a mother to orphaned orangutans and confronted the dangers and temptations of eco-tourism. Spalding has written two novels. Lacks a subject index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Bad press for primatologist Biruté Galdikas and her work with the orangutans of Borneo, from novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife, 1996, etc.). Grim rumors attend Galdikas much as they did another of Louis Leakey's trio of angels, Dian Fossey: reports that she is delusional, vastly self-absorbed, a threat not only to herself but also the creatures she claims to protect. Unfortunately, Galdikas does little to challenge the snipings, if that is what they are. Spalding, who had sought out Galdikas as a vehicle to explore our species's distancing from the natural world, found the primatologist distracted and aloof on the rare occasions when she made contact and furtive the rest of the time. Spalding tries to avoid official channels to get at Galdikas, but that only incurs the wrath of Borneo's refuge manager and distances Galdikas even further. So Spalding must rely on reports and interviews with those who have worked directly with Galdikas to investigate claims of the dreadful failure of interspecies adoption (humans caring for orphaned orangutans) and retrofitting them for the wild—Galdikas's sacred notion and guiding principle. From what Spalding has gathered, it's a disaster, with the rehabilitated orangutans often killed by their wild counterparts, or spreading disease throughout the forest canopy, or simply too emotionally damaged by their time with humans to survive in a wild state. Spalding also reports that Galdikas may have an outrageous number of orangutans at her town house in Pasir Panjang, far from their natural precincts, in a situation that comes perilously (and creepily) close to an anthropomorphism gone berserk. There are further allegations of profiteeringand intellectual back-stabbing, of worthless data gathered by incompetents under Galdikas's direction, and of an ecotourism that delivers a skewed message and its income into the wrong hands. Spalding tries to lighten the impact of her story with an idyllic, out-of-time passage to a Dayak village, but it is to no avail. The picture here of Galdikas's activities is unremittingly distressing and raises serious questions to which she will have to respond.

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Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


an excerpt from A Dark Place in the Jungle

by Linda Spalding

At four o'clock, it begins to be cool enough that movement is just bearable again. Between five and seven, the light gets longer and softer and there are shadows on surfaces. Greens deepen. The sky becomes opaque. That afternoon, as the hard heat began to lift, I stood, wet with sweat, on the porch and tried to throw off the oppression of the closed and silent rooms. As if the effort of bringing back her childhood had been physically exhausting, Riska was sound asleep. I took a deep breath. Yes, it was ever so slightly cooler and the sunlight didn't hurt my skin. A pair of kingfishers flew past! The smell of a distant cooking fire rose up from across the river and mixed with a nearer, marshier scent. My forest ancestors would have recognized every detail of those smells, would have absorbed them the way I absorb the particular flavors of a soup. This time of day would have furnished them special delights, which is why I had come, after all-to waken those senses and find my most elemental self. Locking the door against Gistok, I threw the key in over the transom, so that Riska would not be trapped inside.

Locked out, locked away from everything even faintly familiar-my books, clothes, comforts, my language, even my guide-I was staring at a river full of crocodiles. I was allergic to the grass. I had no boat. No phone. No mailbox. No one could contact me even if they tried. In a moment I would walk into the forest and if I didn't come back, no one would know where to look for my remains. I'd kicked off the traces; that's how I felt. For almost thirty years I'd been responsible for children. And to them. In fact, I'd been answerable to someone all my life. To be sensible, to be respectable, to stay within the law, within the bounds of etiquette, inside well-marked cultural lines. Like the orangutans, I was a creature of culture. And like Riska, only she'd gone a lot further from her origins than I. From the start, I'd been so closely monitored that when I jumped, I never knew whether it was a reaction to the lines I was crossing or a response to some part of my true self. I couldn't think of a single minute of my life that hadn't belonged to someone else. Even now, on the other side of the locked door, there was Riska. Maybe I should stay unattached, forget any personal feelings for her. I'd come from another world and I had no right, or duty even, to make her part of mine. Writing the truth, about herself or anything else, would permanently change her life. I had locked the door. Fine. And when I looked around for Gistok, he was out of sight.

I thought, If fear is connected to other people's claims, then being invisible I should be fearless. And being fearless, I'm free. "Out of here," as my kids would say. Four hours' walk away there was a piece of land held by Birut,'s husband, Pak Bohap. Anyway, it was ostensibly in his name. I'd heard about it from the rangers,

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