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Orang -Utans -Primate in peril

Book Review

A new book highlights the beauty and plight of the red ape.

ORANG utans are said to be man’s closest relatives genetically, but our knowledge of them could be rather limited save for those who take wildlife documentaries seriously.

Furthermore, the educational content in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, where most people have their first encounter with an orang utan, is dismal.

Human baby-sitters and orangutans at the Nyaru Menteng rescue centre in Central Kalimantan. Orang utans are increasingly faced with disturbed forests and scarcity of food.

So a book covering every aspect of the primate that is found only in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo is a welcome sight on bookstore shelves.

In Orang-utans: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, the latest collaboration between New Holland Publisher and World Wide Fund for Nature, the threatened species and its life stories are told in plain language and stunning pictures.

Author Junaidi Payne is no stranger in the conservation circle of this region, having spent a significant part of his career as WWF-Malaysia conservation biologist in Sabah, and with numerous nature-related publications to his name.

Together with Filipino Cede Prudente, an accomplished nature photographer who has also made Sabah his base for the longest time, the duo deftly illustrates issues concerning orang utans.

The biology, evolution, behaviour, distribution and population densities of the red ape, so regarded after its hair colours which range from light orange to dark brown, are amply discussed.

One piece of new knowledge which I gained from the book is the intriguing phenomenon called bimaturism among male orang utans. It seems that only one adult male in a particular locality will develop full, massive body size with cheek flanges. Other sexually mature males in the vicinity will remain in a less-developed form until the big male dies or disappears.

The chapter on evolution, history and links to human, as the author suggests, “will force us to reflect on what exactly are the unique features of humans with ethical and theological implications.” This chapter also deals with man’s fascination with orang utans, manifested in numerous myths and folklores. These make for a fascinating read.

Another interesting chapter tackles the ethical debate of keeping the ape in captivity. Here, Payne opined that “zoos help provide new information on the species and are not a drain on wild populations.” He argued that many zoos contribute towards conservation of the species in the wild. The Frankfurt Zoological Society, for instance, plays a huge role in rehabilitation of the Sumatran orang utan (Pongo abelii).

A significant number of pages are fittingly dedicated to the home of this creature – the equatorial rainforest. Under the deceptive green and brown canopy expanse that gives an illusion of monotonous and homogeneous vegetation, the prime habitat of the orang utan actually varies from peat swamp to freshwater swamp forests, riparian forests and lowland dipterocarp forests.

Payne noted that two small and highly endangered remnant populations of orang utan exist in the mountainous Kinabalu Park and Crocker Range Park. They are assumed, for the time being, as belonging to the sub-species Pongo pygmaeus morio, occurring more abundantly in the lowlands and swamps of eastern Sabah.

And there is the almost extinct population in the patchy heath forest (kerangas) east of Barito River in south-eastern Central Kalimantan, which has never been investigated scientifically.

Far more important and relevant, however, is the attention given to the issues of shrinking habitat, displacement and the future of rescue centres. Digging into his knowledge of the politics of forestry, Payne boldly told a story of wanton deforestation and multiple threats. Orang utans are increasingly faced with disturbed forests – logged, burnt and replaced with alien species like oil palm and fast-growing trees – and scarcity of food.

Being fruit-eating specialists that reproduce slowly and yet able to tolerate extreme privation, but living for years in degraded or infertile land, Payne warned that “wild populations could reach a tipping point whereby chronic poor nutrition, stress and a subtle trend of increasing mortality may combine to cause rapid local extinction.”

The final chapter aptly raises the question: What can be done? Payne reckoned that a conceptual marriage is needed, between making degraded forests economically valuable again as well as retaining and restoring orang utan habitats.

For people who are moved by the plight of the orang utan, Payne suggested that they write letters to key people or institutions as “repeated constructive engagement, again and again, may achieve results.”

For those eager to catch a glimpse of the creature in the wild, the book has a list of places for that, as Payne believes eco-tourism can be a considerable force for conservation.

Priced at RM150, the book is available at major bookstores.