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The Natural History of Orang-Utan

Book Review by Wayne Tarman

The orang-utan is certainly one of the world's most beautiful creatures. Often used as to symbolise the rainforest and conservation issues, hijacked by all for use as an instantly recognisable and highly marketable mascot, and invariably the highlight of any child's visit to a zoo, the elusive "man of the forest" is certainly the cute and familiar face of the animal world. But how much do we really know about the orang-utan, one of our closest relatives.

The Natural History of Orang-Utan goes beyond the popular images and takes the reader into the natural world of the orang-utan and its home the rainforest. Unlike some scientists and academics, author Elizabeth Bennett has successful managed to write a book that contains a wealth of facts and scientific data but at that same time remains accessible to the non-specialist. Bennett's experience and knowledge of primates and conservation issues and her writing style result in a book that educates and is a joy to read. For people like myself that are interested in wildlife and conservation but don't like to get bogged down in too much science or have to read a unnecessary sermon from an over enthusiastic preaching greenie, this is a most welcome combination.

Natural History Publications, the Sabah-based publisher of The Natural History of Orang-Utan has, in the space of a relatively short period of time, established a reputation for producing thoroughly readable educational books on its chosen publishing niche - the natural environment and wildlife of Borneo. The author Elizabeth Bennett has a reputation to match the publisher. Having read zoology and gained a Phd from Cambridge University for her research on primates in West Malaysia, Bennett moved to Sarawak in 1984 to conduct a study of the ecology of proboscis monkeys for the WWF Malaysia and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC). She now works for the WSC and the Sarawak Forest Department and is currently helping to implement a Master Plan for Wildlife in Sarawak.

The Natural History of Orang-Utan is the author's second book by Natural History Publications. Like her first title, Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo, which provides a comprehensive natural history of one of the most bizarre looking creatures on earth, The Natural History of Orang-Utan is illustrated with some superb colour photographs. The bulk of the photographs were taken at the various orang-utan rehabilitation centres in Borneo and Sumatra, with a large number taken at Sepilok in Sabah. However, there are also some interesting shots that were taken in the wild. For example on page 46, there is a excellent behavioural shot taken by Hans P. Hazebroek which shows a male orang-utan kneeling down at a salt lick at Sarawak's Batang Ai National Park.

The book is divided into 11 chapters which deal with all aspects of the orang-utan's life. The first chapter discusses the "Myths, Legends & First Impressions". The local people of Sumatra and Borneo who share the rainforest with the orang-utan have developed numerous myths, legends and beliefs. Human-like features, strength and intelligence are just some of the characteristics that have resulted in a mythical fascination with the red ape.

The following three chapters provide essential background information and describe exactly what orang-utans are, their appearance and where they are found and why. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with life history and social life respectively whilst chapter 7 focuses on diet. The next chapter discusses travel and how such a large animal is perfectly adapted to a life in the forest canopy. Chapter 9, entitled "Tools & Language", discusses recent research projects that clearly show that the orang-utan is highly intelligent species and has tool using and language skills that are on a par with those of the African great apes.

The penultimate chapter, the longest in the book, is perhaps the most interesting as it deals with conservation issues, threats facing the orang-utan and the effectiveness of rehabilitation centres. It also suggests what you can do to help the orang-utan. The final chapter of the book provides details of where to see orang-utans in Sumatra and Borneo. It lists four orang-utan rehabilitation centres that are open to the public, namely Sepilok (Sabah), Semengoh (Sarawak), Tanjung Puting National Park (Central Kalimantan) & Bohorok (North Sumatra). There are also details of three areas where, with patience and good luck, it is possible to see truly wild orang-utans. These include Danum Valley and the Lower Kinabatangan in Sabah, and Batang Ai National Park in Sarawak.

To sum up, The Natural History of Orang-Utan provides an excellent introduction to this fascinating red ape. With the text written by an acknowledged expert on primates and conservation issues, and some exceptional photo images, this publication is a welcome addition to Natural History Publication's portfolio of nature-based books on Borneo. Furthermore, for anyone planning a trip to Semengoh (Sarawak) or Sepilok (Sabah) orang-utan rehabilitation centres, this book is an excellent memento for what is usually an unforgettable part of a trip to Borneo.

The Natural History of Orang-Utan. Elizabeth L. Bennett; Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn Bhd, Kota Kinabalu, 1998. ISBN 983-812-121-9. Widely available in Kuching and priced around RM 40-45.

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