The Intimate Ape – Book Review

BOOK REVIEW The Intimate Ape Title Pic

The Intimate Ape – Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species
Shaun Thompson

After visiting Kalimantan (in November 2011) and seeing the orangutans for the first time in the wild, my interest and compassion for these beautiful, intelligent primates just grew even deeper…I couldn’t stop thinking about the orangutans and their vanishing environment! Whilst I was in Bali, at the end of my holiday, I just had to pop into Periplus (as I always do!) and there I found…the book ‘The Intimate Ape’ with a photo on the front cover of a sweet little baby orangutan. I had to buy the book of course!

So, after returning home, I began reading the ‘The Intimate Ape’, written by Shaun Thompson, a journalist from America, who has travelled the world to find orangutans and interview orangutan scientists. His travels include; Sumatra and Borneo (the only two places in the world where you can find orangutans in the wild, in their natural habitat), Java, the Philippines, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States.

‘The Intimate Ape’ is a fusion of global perspectives of primatologists, conservationists, and volunteers to reveal the intricate life of the orangutan….it’s a journey through the steamy rainforests of Sumatra and the jungle rivers of Borneo. Shaun Thompson travels down the Sekonyer River into the jungles of southern Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo – the exact same river that I travelled down when I ventured into the jungle to see the orangutans. As I read Shaun’s descriptions of travelling down the Sekonyer River on the klotok (the name for the house boat in Kalimantan)… I relived my journey to the jungle…and this got me totally absorbed in the book.

{*And of course, if I’m not actually travelling in Indonesia, I’m at home reading about Indonesia!}

The other thing I really loved about this book was Shaun’s in-depth descriptions and stories of the orangutans that I had met when I went to Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting, Kalimantan. These included; Kusasi (one of the dominant males), Siswi (an older female), Princess and her baby boy Percy (my absolute favourite orangutan!). Shaun writes about the lives of these orangutans…their individual stories…and in particular their ways of trying to reach out to humans for affection and companionship…these creatures are a relation of humanity. They have personalities, they have hearts and feelings.

We all know the famous Dian Fossey, an American Zoologist who undertook an extensive 18 year study on the gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda, I’m sure most of us have seen the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ that tells the story of Dian Fossey. And I’m sure we’ve all heard about Jane Goodall, who is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on the chimpanzees. She spent 45 years studying the social and family interactions of the wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.
But how many people have heard about Birute Galdikas?

Birute Galdikas makes up the third angel, of the so-called ‘Leakey’s Angels’, a group of three prominent researchers on primates – Fossey on gorillas, Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans. Louis Leakey was a British archaeologist and naturalist who motivated the next generation to continue his research by sending the three women to study the three different primates in their natural environments.

Birute Galdikas began field studies on the orangutans in the jungles of Kalimantan, Indonesia in 1971, when she established Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting, named after her mentor, Louis Leakey. At this time Goodall and Fossey were both well into their field studies and research, thus Galdikas was so to say – ‘the new kid on the block’ and was also named the third angel to Louis Leakey. Now after 40 years, Galdikas has conducted the longest continuous study by one principal researcher of any wild mammal in the world! Yes….40 years she has lived in the jungles of Tanjung Puting National Park. And she still lives there today, married to a native Dayak man!

In 1975, Birute Galdikas wrote a cover story for National Geographic, which featured a photo on the front cover of Galdikas walking hand in hand with an orangutan called Akmad and carrying a young orangutan; Sobiarso on her hip… this launched her as an icon, up there with Fossey and Goodall. This article was based on five thousand hours of observations of orangutans in the jungle and Galdikas had become the surrogate mother and rehabilitator of captive and/or orphaned orangutans.

By 1980, Galdikas stood strong by her radical position that if orangutan surrogate mothers weren’t available, human surrogate mothers needed to be used for a long period of time. Thus by being a surrogate mother, Galdikas believed that this was the only hope for the orangutans to return to the wild.
This concept lead to much disagreement from others working with orangutans, as they did not believe in Galdikas’ concept. Some say it is wrong to use human surrogates, aside from the obvious issue of the orangutans catching human diseases, it also destroys the wild mentality of orangutans. However, Galdikas had more experience and was more famed than any of the others, and she continued with her orangutan rehabilitation beliefs.

Kaplan and Rogers say that studies show that orangutans raised by human beings have a much worse chance of surviving than orangutans raised in captivity by a mother orangutan. That would make human beings a poor substitute… but maybe it’s better than nothing!?

In the 1980’s Galdikas created the Orangutan Foundation International and began spending more time through the 80’s and 90’s on political issues, such as; protecting the rainforest and continuously fighting illegal logging.

For it is a known fact that the orangutans are under threat of extinction. There are different opinions of what ‘extinction’ actually means here; some believe that the orangutans would be extinct in their natural habitat and the last few would remain in zoos, others think that fragments of small groups of orangutans will be left scattered in rain forest ghettos. I hate to imagine…and still hope that the illegal logging can be stopped (or at the very least controlled) and the rain forests can be saved thus saving the orangutan’s home too.

Anyone that has had direct contact with an orangutan, especially those that still live in their natural habitat, will know, that each orangutan is so human-like, that it is just unthinkable not to work towards protecting them! The orangutans are innocent bystanders.

The book was a continuous reminder of my journey to the jungle of Kalimantan…from the descriptions of river life and the amazing array of sights and sounds of the wildlife in the jungle to the descriptions and stories of each individual orangutan. And it all reminded me of the moment that Princess, the orangutan at Camp Leakey, reached out her long arm and stretched out her hand so that her leathery long fingers and hand could touch mine. She reached out to me…just like a human being would reach out for affection and companionship! And this is where the heart opens up to let these beautiful creatures in.

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