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Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo

"That is why we find the adult male orangutan so compelling.  In his eyes we see a precarious balance of ruthless strength and brutality on the one hand, and gentleness and serenity on the other.  The eyes of the male orangutan remind us of the awkward combination of angel and beast that characterizes the human soul."

People called them "Leakey's Angels", or sometimes "The Trimates" - the three young women who, in service of the Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey, devoted themselves to studying the world's great apes by living among them.  Jane Goodall was a young Englishwoman who's pioneering studies of chimpanzees made her perhaps the most famous living biologist of our time.  Dian Fossey, who studied the mountain gorillas of Central Africa, was immortalized in film by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, the motion picture that shares a title with her book. 

Far less renown, far more overlooked is the third member of the triad.  Her name is Birute Galdikas.  Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo is her story.

It strikes me as a shame that Galdikas doesn't get more credit in the popular imagination, for in many ways she had the most challenging study subject.  Compared to chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans are largely solitary.  Galdikas comments more than once about how Fossey or Goodall would be able to observe more behavior, more social interactions in an afternoon than she would see in months.  Months would pass without Galdikas getting so much insight to orangutan life as a glimpse of red fur, vanishing in the trees.  On more than one occasion, her study subjects expressed their displeasure at being followed by actually trying to kill her, looking her calmly in the eyes as they dropped dead branches onto her.

It's a testament to the perseverance of Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod, that the orangutans eventually accepted her, offering her fascinating insights into their lives.  She learned that orangutans are not as solitary as was initially believed, that they are capable of tool use (just like chimpanzees), and detailed the intricate relationships between mother and offspring.  In the later case, she learned more than she'd planned on when she became the foster mother to a handful of emaciated young apes which she had confiscated from illegal pet-owners.  In another case, she learned the truth behind one of the most horrifying local legends about orangutans... and almost certainly wished that she hadn't.

Field biology memoirs are always partially the story of the animals and habitats involved, partially that of the people.  Reflections of Eden teaches the reader a lot about orangutans, but it's also about Galdikas' struggles, personally and professionally, as she copes with indifferent bureaucracy and a culture which is simultaneously welcoming and sympathetic yet distant and labyrinthine.  Doubtlessly her greatest struggles, however, come from within her own family, as her passion for saving orangutans and love of Indonesia separates her from her husband and son.

Reflections of Eden is the story of a woman who set out to study a strange and little known world, and, bit by bit, found out that she had become part of it.  It is not a heart-warming, feel-good book.  If anything, the story gets bleaker after the book was written.  Since it's publication in 1995, the plight of wild orangutans has reached a critical new level, as palm oil plantations threaten to swallow the whole of Indonesia's rainforests.  Still, people won't fight to save orangutans if they don't know that they are in danger, and we won't know that they are in danger if we barely know them at all.


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