Travel Features > Book Review
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
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.