Orangutan Odyssey

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For more than 25 years, renowned primatologist Birut Galdikas has lived among the orangutans of Borneo, studying their habits, defending them against loggers and poachers, and nurturing their orphaned youngsters. Now, with this extraordinary pictorial essay, Galdikas brings to life her work with these shy and endangered red apes. Taking readers to her remote rainforest headquarters, Galdikas draws on Karl Ammann's unparalleled photographs to present intimate portraits of the individual orangutans she's come to ...
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For more than 25 years, renowned primatologist Birut Galdikas has lived among the orangutans of Borneo, studying their habits, defending them against loggers and poachers, and nurturing their orphaned youngsters. Now, with this extraordinary pictorial essay, Galdikas brings to life her work with these shy and endangered red apes. Taking readers to her remote rainforest headquarters, Galdikas draws on Karl Ammann's unparalleled photographs to present intimate portraits of the individual orangutans she's come to know and offers rare glimpses of their behavior in the wild. With an introduction by famed chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall-who, like Galdikas and Dian Fossey, is a Louis Leakey protge-this is a superb and revelatory volume for nature and animal lovers everywhere.
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Editorial Reviews

Tony Gibbs
In studying orangutans, Galdikas has, perhaps not unnaturally, fallen under the spell of their near-human charm. She and her associates have rescued considerable numbers of the animals who have been illegally made pets or been trapped to be smuggled out of the country. Karl Ammann's photos are stunning as well as captivating. Orangutan is a great lavish pictures-and text volume book.
Island Magazine
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Memorable, informal and attractive, this volume describes the affectionate, energetic primates among whom Galdikas has spent much of her life. Galdikas, Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey began their careers as students of the illustrious paleontologist Louis Leakey; all three have since gained worldwide attention for their struggles to understand and save the great apes. In fluid prose, Galdikas and Briggs (director of education at Orangutan Foundation International) describe the extinct proto-orang Gigantopithecus; laud a charismatic orang named Kusasi; examine behaviors like nest building, grooming and foraging; and explain what makes orangutans "the best mothers in the world." Charming and individual, orangutans also develop ingenious routines designed (for example) to render edible certain wild fruits--one that oozes latex when pierced, another whose burrs must be rubbed off on a branch. Wildlife photographer Amman adds 100 compelling color photographs, certainly part of the book's reason for existing: these show the cute Indonesian apes yawning, screaming, smiling, sniffing a flower, caressing one another's bellies and swinging from branch to branch. Galdikas and Briggs combine their warm and informal descriptions of life among the orangutans with arguments about their worrisome future. Indonesia is rapidly losing its tropical wilderness, and "to save the orangutan, the forest must be preserved." Some endangered animals can't be returned to the wild after being raised in captivity; for orangutans, however, raise-and-release programs are appropriate, though no substitute for saving their habitat. Final segments depict the rehabilitation programs, the forests they use and the destructive logging that threatens this species along with so many others. Jane Goodall proffers an introduction. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
For more than 25 years, primatologist Galdikas has studied the elusive wild orangutans in the forests of Borneo. Having written about her experiences and findings in Reflections of Eden, she offers here a photographic essay on the current plight of orangutans, with a particular emphasis on environmental degradation in Borneo, especially in recent years when logging, forest fires, and gold mining have destroyed much of the habitat these animals need for survival. Without directly addressing her critics, such as Linda Spalding (A Dark Place in the Jungle, LJ 5/1/99), Galdikas justifies her activities in rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned orangutans and reintroducing them to the forest. Some volunteer assistants are photographed wearing face masks and gloves to protect the orangutans from picking up human diseases; others are not. Galdikas does not respond to allegations that some baby orangutans have been kept in crowded, unsanitary conditions. She does argue, based on "ongoing research" (no citations provided), that wild orangutans have not been affected behaviorally or medically by the reintroduction of ex-captives. She also writes that the "preoccupation with rehabilitation is a symptom of the failure to get to the underlying causes of the orangutan crisis....We should be talking about how to stop the flow of captive orangutans and the destruction of orangutan habitat." True, but Galdikas's stature and effectiveness in the scientific and conservation community may depend on how effectively she protects the animals in her care. This is a beautiful book that belongs in public and academic libraries, but it's not the last word on Galdikas.--Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Tony Gibbs
About three decades ago the anthropologist Louis Leakey inspired three young women scientists to embark on long-term studies of the great primates - tracking their behavior in the wild, without interfering in their lives.
Dian Fossey realized fame but met a tragic death studying gorillas; Jane Goodall has attained an equal renown working with chimpanzees; and Biruté Galdi-kas, a Canadian, has also become known, if not as famously, for her observations of perhaps the most unusual of the three primates, the Borneo orangutan.
It's a simple idea to follow wild creatures in their natural setting, over extended periods. Accomplishing this is more dif- ficult, and nowhere more so than in Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of Borneo, where both the animals and their rain forest habitat are under constant threat from encroaching humanity.
Nevertheless, Galdikas has managed to significantly contribute to our knowledge of these near-relations of ours, and she has now told their story in Orangutan Odyssey a lavish pictures-and-text volume co-authored by Nancy Briggs and photographed by Karl Ammann.
In studying orangutans, Galdikas has, perhaps not unnaturally, fallen under the spell of their near-human charm. She and her associates have rescued considerable numbers of the animals who have been illegally made pets or been trapped to be smuggled out of the country. At Camp Leakey, her island base, Galdikas has rehabilitated orangutans and, when possible, released them back into the wild.
But even with the on-again, off-again cooperation of Indonesian authorities, the future for these marvelous creatures remains precarious, making this account all the more valuable.
And Karl Ammann's photos are stunning as well as captivating.
Islands Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810936942
  • Publisher: Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 10.75 (w) x 11.75 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Yet regard this wonderful monster with the human face ... walking erect, first that young female satyr ... hiding her face with her hands ... weeping copiously, uttering groans, and expressing other human acts so that you would say nothing human was lacking in her but speech. The [native people] say in truth, that they can talk, but do not wish to, lest they should be compelled to labor.... The name they give to it is Orang outang.

Jacob Bontius (de Bond), 1658

The damp forest air is heavy with fragrance. High up in the 150-foot canopy, the crown of the giant Palaquium tree, laced with tiny, almost invisible blossoms, embraces the sky. Seeking a glimpse of the rare and wary orangutan, I have been walking for ten days in the tropical rain forests of Tanjung Puting in central Indonesian Borneo.

Biruté M. F. Galdikas, 1971

             Borneo is part of the emerald chain of seventeen thousand islands that make up the Republic of Indonesia, strung across the equator between continental Asia and Australia. A hothouse of biodiversity, breeding countless species of wildlife, the verdant, dripping forests of Borneo and neighboring Sumatra conceal the only Asiatic great ape, the orangutan. (The gibbon resides there as well but is a lesser ape.)

    Although orangutans were among the first apes known to Western science, for centuries they were the most enigmatic. Jacob Bontius, a Dutchman,made the first known reference to orangutans in the scientific literature in 1658. Compared to Borneo, Africa lies next door to Europe. When Westerners first began to explore the mountainous interior of Borneo in the late nineteenth century, the so-called Dark Continent, Africa, already had been mapped and carved into European colonies. By the mid-nineteenth century, the African apes, chimpanzees, and gorillas were familiar figures in travelogues and nature books.

    Although an occasional orangutan was captured and brought to Europe, the apes were rarely observed in their natural habitat. The reason for this was simple: orangutans are almost exclusively arboreal and semisolitary. They are more difficult to find than their gregarious, ground-dwelling, and (in the case of the chimpanzee) noisy African cousins. Rarely seen or heard, orangutans evoked a body of misconceptions, and they became a mirror in which naturalists and scientists reflected the varying credos and dominant cosmologies of the age. Sometimes viewed as tool-using buffoons for their habit of throwing twigs down at observers and for their use of objects in captivity, and at other times regarded as sage but speechless versions of ourselves, orangutans remained largely unknown not only to the outside world but also to nearby native populations.

As I walk, the raucous rasping cries of rhinoceros hornbills signal the presence of ripe fruit in the canopy. I look up to see if any other species of wildlife, whether orangutan, gibbon, or squirrel, has found the fruit advertised by their loud squawks, but the large black-and-white birds with the oversized beaks dine alone. I trudge on, my eyes scanning the canopy for any clue that might betray the presence of an orangutan.

    Centuries ago, the native people of Borneo—the Dayaks, who live mainly in the interior and the Melayu, who mainly occupy the coast—recognized the orangutan's close affinity to human beings. They called the big, red apes "orang hutan," which means "people of the forest" in the Malay language, the lingua franca of the region. As Jacob Bontius reported in the opening quotation, local people in Borneo traditionally believed that orangutans could talk but chose not to because they might be enslaved and put to work.

    Orangutans occasionally appear in local mythology. In a Dayak version of the "Beauty and the Beast" folktale, a male orangutan abducts a comely woman, carrying her up to his leafy nest high in the forest canopy. Although terrified at first, she finds her captor kind and gentle. After the woman has an infant, however, a child half orangutan, half human, she longs to see her parents and family. So she fashions a rope out of vines and orangutan hair she had collected from the nest, and, in the manner of Rapunzel, she flees. The orangutan pursues her. During the chase, the woman drops her infant. In his rage, the father tears the baby in half, keeping the surviving orangutan half for himself. The woman retrieves the human half and leaves the forest, returning to her village.

    Thus, the Dayaks believe that orangutans and humans are so closely related that they can be sexually attracted to one another, and even procreate. Unlike Westerners, Dayaks do not draw a sharp distinction between animals and humans nor do they believe that women are the only "victims" of cross-species passion. More egalitarian than some cultures, Dayaks also tell stories of female orangutans abducting men and bearing their children. Traditionally, Dayaks believe that the connection between humans and orangutans goes back to the beginning of time. A widespread Dayak creation myth tells that God's first attempt to breathe life into humans gave birth to orangutans. Only on the second try, after God took a breather, so to speak, did humans come into being. This myth captures an essential truth and an evolutionary fact, that orangutans appeared on this planet long before modern humans did.

    This Dayak myth parallels the unfolding of part of our own modern knowledge of human evolution. In 1934, a graduate student from Yale discovered fragmentary jaw remains of a hominoid (the ancestral superfamily that includes the ancestors of both humans and apes) that could be placed in the fossil record at ten to fifteen million years ago. For the next twenty to thirty years, Ramapithecus, as this species was called, was the oldest candidate for the first known ancestors of humans. But many paleoanthropologists were unconvinced by the fragmentary remains and questioned whether Ramapithcecus was even a hominid (the smaller family that includes only humans and their direct ancestors). When another paleoanthropologist, David Pilbeam, and his colleagues began excavating in the Siwalik Hills of what is now Pakistan, they hoped to verify the existence of this ancient hominid, perhaps the much sought "missing link." Instead, after examining more complete fossils, they found themselves face-to-face with what was undeniably an ancestral orangutan. The conclusion is similar to the Dayak myths. Prehumans were evolutionary latecomers, appearing only a few million years ago, after ancestral orangutans had diverged from the line leading to humans.

    Ancient hominids and ancestral orangutans probably lived side by side for at least a million years. In Java, orangutanlike fossils have been found in the same layers as remains of Homo erectus, the hominid that preceded our own species, Homo sapiens. Certainly, modern orangutans and humans have interacted for thousands of years. The most compelling evidence was found in the Niah Caves of Sarawak on the northwestern coast of Borneo. Led by the late Tom Harrisson, a British scholar-adventurer who became the head of the Sarawak National Museum, archaeologists sifting through centuries of detritus on the twenty-seven-acre floor of the Great Cave, discovered a modern human skull (Homo sapiens) approximately forty thousand years old. With the skull were the charred bones of orangutans and other nonhuman primates. The various primate bones were exceeded in number only by the remains of wild pigs in the leftovers of these early human meals. While it is not known conclusively, the evidence suggests that the humans ate the orangutans and the pigs. Indeed, in Sarawak today, wild pigs are the game animals most favored by local Dayak hunters, and many Dayak groups still eat orangutans. As difficult as it is to accept the idea of eating creatures as close to human beings as they are, the fact is that great apes around the world have been killed for food by humans, and are still being killed today.

    Prehistoric orangutans once ranged over a much larger geographic area than they occupy today because in earlier times the climate of mainland Asia was much warmer and wetter than it is now. Orangutan homelands stretched from southern China, throughout what was once known as Indochina, into the Malay Peninsula. During the Pleistocene era, which began about three million years ago and only ended about twenty thousand years ago, the earth became colder and drier. What is usually thought of as the Ice Age was actually a long series of cold and temperate waves. With each successive ice age, much of the water in the world's oceans became locked into ice, and the sea level dropped. When this occurred in Southeast Asia land bridges emerged, connecting the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java to the Asian mainland. Continental Asian wildlife migrated to the islands. Species as diverse as orangutans, tigers, tapirs, gibbons, and elephants made their appearance, only to be marooned on the islands during interglacial periods, when sea levels rose and land bridges were flooded.

    Orangutans also were found on the mainland of Asia, as well as in Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. For centuries, Chinese apothecaries have sold "dragon bones" for use in traditional medicines. The dragon bones were primarily fossilized remains. Indeed, Western scientists discovered Giantopithecus, a large savanna ape that became extinct in China about a million years ago, not in an archaeological excavation but in local Chinese medicine shops. Ancient orangutan teeth also were found among the "dragon bones."

    These ancient orangutan teeth were much larger than the equivalent of modern orangutan teeth. If tooth size is an accurate indicator of total body size, these extinct end-of-Pleistocene orangutans may have been considerably larger than modern orangutans. This created a quandary for primatologists. It seemed impossible that so large an ape could have pursued the more fully arboreal life-style of modern orangutans. According to one argument, the large, heavy ancestral orangutans must have lived in the manner of modern gorillas, traveling and foraging on the ground, with a large adult male leading and protecting the group. The gorilla analogy was popular because, like gorillas orangutans are sexually dimorphic—that is, males and females differ markedly in size and appearance. Males may weigh 300 pounds, whereas females may weigh less than 80. Mature male orangutans develop large cheekpads, a hanging throat pouch, and a beard that make them easy to distinguish from females or immature males. Typically, males and females of arboreal primates (such as gibbons) are more similar in size and appearance than are terrestrial primates. Yet orangutans are arboreal and sexually dimorphic, breaking the rules. The modern orangutan male's large size was considered by some scientists a leftover from a terrestrial life-style.

    At the end of the Pleistocene era, about ten to twenty thousand years ago, orangutans became extinct on the Asian mainland. Whether they were hunted to extinction by increasingly large human populations that became armed with sophisticated projectile weapon systems (such as blowguns and bows and arrows), or succumbed to climatic changes is uncertain. About the same time, the orangutans also disappeared from Java and southern Sumatra, again for unknown reasons. Today, orangutans are found only on the island of Borneo and in northern Sumatra.

When I first arrived in Borneo and wandered through the great forest surrounding Camp Leakey, my first base camp on the Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting, searching for wild orangutans, I often thought about early published images of the great apes. Like shadows or ghosts, seldom seen but often sensed, the great apes had haunted the human psyche from the dawn of Western thought. Ancient Greek mythology includes descriptions of "pygmacan races" that, like monkeys and apes, lived in the trees and were capable of making themselves invisible. The ancient Greeks had probably seen what were later called Barbary apes (not apes at all but atypical tail-less monkeys) which roamed the Mediterranean shores of North Africa, as well as the monkeys kept by their Egyptian contemporaries, who revered the male hamadryas baboon, with his majestic silvery, lionine mane. Egyptians believed that the male hamadryas was an incarnation of Thoth, the god of scribes and scholars and the inventor of science and writing, who stood behind the king of gods in divine assemblies, inspiring wisdom.

    The first record of the actual observation of great apes occurred relatively early. In 470 B.C. a group of colonists sailed down the coast of West Africa, where they encountered hairy, stone-throwing creatures they called gorillai (probably a local name). What they were remains unknown, but in any case two thousand years would pass before Europeans began to learn more about what we now know as gorillas.

    During Roman times, Pliny the Elder described all manner of exotic, half-human creatures, including one race that hopped on one foot like an invention of Dr. Seuss. Pliny's fantasia included the "satyrs" of India, who had the legs of a goat and the upper body of a monkey or human, and creatures with dog-shaped heads and furry clothing, that lived in the mountains. The "satyrs" might have been based on the lanky hanuman langurs, believed by Hindus to be manifestations of Hanuman the Monkey God. The different species of macaques that reside in India may have inspired tales of the dog-faced mountain creatures.

    In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the world was opened up to exploration by Portuguese navigators in small wooden sailing ships able to sail into the wind, a new technique that for the first time allowed European explorers and adventurers to return home relatively quickly after their voyages of discovery. Previously, they could return home in square-riggers that sailed "before" the wind, but the journeys were very long, and the routes were circuitous. Suddenly, Europe was flooded not only with the gold and silver of conquered New World empires, trade goods from India and China, and gold, ivory, and (later) slaves from the west coast of Africa but also with plant and animal specimens from the newly discovered tropical world. The recent invention of the printing press helped to spread explorers' tales of exotic places flora and fauna. Among the specimens of the fauna brought to Europe for the first time, alive or dead, were great apes.

    In 1641 a Dutch anatomist, Nicolaes Tulp (coincidentally the subject of one of Rembrandt's greatest paintings), provided the first detailed description of an ape. The animal had been given to the Prince of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands. Tulp classified the ape Satyrus indicus, harking back to Pliny's "satyr," but noted that the animal was called "orang-outing" by natives in the ape's land of origin. In retrospect, Tulp's description suggests that the ape was not an orangutan but more likely a bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee).

    Half a century later, Edward Tyson dissected the first ape to reach England alive, an infant who, unfortunately, died soon after arrival. Tyson also called this ape "orange-outing," even though the infant was almost certainly a chimpanzee. For more than a century, variations of the Malay name for orangutans were applied to all apes, African and Asian. Why this was so remains a puzzle.

    Curiosity and wonder about apes also were fueled by travelers' accounts and stories collected from sailors, soldiers, and sea captains. A mix of direct observations, descriptions, and myths learned from local peoples, and just plain imagination, such accounts in book form were among the best-sellers of their day. In 1607, Andrew Battell, an Englishman who had been imprisoned by the Portuguese in West Africa, returned to England. His memoir, published in 1625, included what was probably the earliest description of gorillas and chimpanzees as "two kinds of Monsters, which are common and very dangerous." Shakespeare's Caliban, a hybrid of human and beast, may have been inspired by Battell's monsters.

    The first Englishman who visited orangutans in their native islands was Daniel Beeckman, a ship's captain. In his 1714 book, A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, he described "oran-ootans" as having "larger arms than men [and] tolerable good Faces." He continued, "nimble footed and mighty strong; they throw great stones ... [and] sticks at those persons that offend them." For the time it was a surprisingly accurate and objective picture. Unfortunately, Beeckman's pet orangutan infant died after only seven months in captivity and so was never seen by other Europeans.

    In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Westerners struggled to sort out the real from the imaginary, sometimes unsuccessfully, in their classifications of the living world. At this point, the specimens available for the study were chimpanzees from West Africa and orangutans from the Dutch East Indies. Europeans had heard of gorillas from the local people but had not seen or captured one.

    The great French naturalist Comte Georges-Louis de Buffon concluded, on the basis of virtually no evidence, that there was only one species of ape, which varied in size. He called the small ones (including Tulp's carefully described bonobo and Tyson's chimpanzee) "Jockos" and the large ones (orangutans and the legendary gorillas) "Pongos." Others classified apes by color. In this view, there were two types of orangutans, a black one from Africa (chimpanzees and bonobos) and a red one from Asia. The Dutch anatomist Pieter Camper, the first scientist to conduct an intensive study of ape variability, concluded that orangutans and chimpanzees were different species, providing orangutans with their own identity.

    Even so, orangutans confused scientists. The Dayak and Melayu people of Borneo believed that adult male orangutans, with their enormous size, bulging throat pouches, and face-expanding cheekpads, and the smaller female and subadult orangutans, were different types. Likewise, Western naturalists assumed that several species Of orangutans existed.

    The publication of Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 electrified the Western world. The book contained only one sentence suggesting that the theory of evolution might shed light on human origins, but that hint (elaborated on in The Descent of Man in 1871) was enough. Although Darwin did not in his first book suggest any such thing, the idea that human beings were descended from apelike ancestors rekindled fascination with the apes and a market for specimens. Alfred Russell Wallace, the codiscoverer with Darwin of the principle of natural selection, had shot dozens of orangutans while collecting flora and fauna in the Far East. Equally industrious, if not more so, was William Hornaday, who sold natural history specimens to schools, museums, and other scientific institutions. On one day alone he shot seven orangutans, including one that he had found innocently peering down from a nest.

    Ironical]y, and perhaps paradoxically, Darwin's perception that apes are our closest living relatives led not to a family embrace but rather to their further slaughter and vilification. The great eighteenth-century Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, had grouped living creatures according to their physical similarities, and he postulated a hierarchy of beings from the simplest to the most complex, culminating with humans. (His taxonomy begins with the largest grouping and continues to the smallest—Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.) He put monkeys, apes, and humans in the same order, Primates (or first). Like most of his contemporaries, Linnaeus believed that this Great Chain of Being was the result of divine creation and was, therefore, perfect and immutable. What else could explain the orderly diversity of life on earth? But with the Darwinian revolution, humankind's inexorably superior position in the universe was no longer assured by the act of special creation through which an omnipotent deity had birthed the human species. A new means had to be found to draw a line between ourselves and the beasts. Related to us by blood (as it were) and by descent, apes were the threat closest to home. To demonstrate human preeminence, most philosophers, priests, scientists, and artists were forced to repudiate and vilify their nearest of kin.

    From the nineteenth century onward, the image of apes in Western culture became increasingly savage and brutal. Edgar Allan Poe used this new monster ape image in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1847), the first modern detective story. He described the villain who brutally killed two women as a creature "of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity." In Poe's story, the identity of the brute (a serial killer in today's terminology) is revealed when the finger marks on the throat of one of the victims perfectly matches the measurements of an orangutan's hand.

    This monster image reappeared in the tales of the American explorer and journalist Paul Du Chaillu, who visited Africa in the 1850s. Du Chaillu thrilled readers with his accounts of charging adult male gorillas, which he slaughtered by the score.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2000

    Awesome, well-done

    I just got Orangutan Odyssey for my birthday, from my parents and sister, because I'm interested in primatology and orangutans. It's a beautiful book, but there are some mess-ups in it, that don't really take away from the value of the book. It has wonderful pictures, and is a very good source of interesting information. I absolutely love it. It's worth the buy.

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