Friday, January 01, 2010

Meet the Forest People: Face to Face with Orangutans by Tim Laman and Cheryl Knott

After Jari finished his termite breakfast, he sat down for a little rest. It started to rain, and then the most amazing thing happened.... He grabbed some leafy branches from a small tree and held them over his head to block the rain. He had made an umbrella! That made me realize how smart orangutans are.

As Jari sat with his umbrella over his head, he looked toward me and our eyes met. It wasn't like looking into the eyes of other animals. It gave me a different feeling, like he was thinking about me.

Tim Laman's and Cheryl Knott's most recent nature book, Face to Face With Orangutans (Face to Face with Animals) (National Geographic, 2009) takes the reader to the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra to meet one of our nearest primate cousins, the orangutan. This endangered ape differs in interesting ways from their own African cousins, chimpanzees and gorillas, being far more solitary than these highly socialized relatives. Among all primates, including we humans, orangutans are the least communal. Needing no assistance from mates or other females, the mother lives mostly apart from others.

Primarily arboreal, feeding on fruits and seeds and sleeping in the high canopy of the forest, the mother orangutan must continually keep close tabs on her offspring to avoid a fatal fall. During this long childhood, a young orangutan learns the skills of survival solely from the mother, but this long tutelage does provide for the transfer of acquired skills such as the use of tools to capture insects and to open fruits.

Researchers such as Laman and Knott have in the past few decades observed other differences in this primate group. Female orangutans occasionally feed together where ripe fruits are plentiful, but males, particularly the "big males," whose large cheek pads are signs of dominance, remain solitary. Other males, the so-called "small males," may live in adolescent groups for a time. Some of these young ones develop into "big males" and some never do, but both are capable of mating with females.

Their very solitary lives and dependence upon the deep forest canopy for food and shelter make the orangutan especially vulnerable to loss of habitat when forests are cleared for lumber and palm oil plantations. Authors Tim Laman and Cheryl Knott describe "rescue" or rehabilitation centers in which orphaned juveniles are cared for and prepared for release in the wild, and describe worldwide programs to prevent this endangered species from its threatened extinction.

Lavishly illustrated with National Geographic's trademark striking color photographs, Face to Face With Orangutans (Face to Face with Animals) also includes an extensive appendix which offers "Facts at a Glance, tips on "How You Can Help" to protect the orangutan's habitat, a glossary, a bibliography of books, articles, films, and web sites, and an index.

Other titles in the excellent Face to Face With Animals series include Face to Face With Sharks (Face to Face with Animals), Face to Face with Dolphins (Face to Face with Animals), and Face to Face With Cheetahs (Face to Face with Animals).

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