Thinkers of the Jungle

Nick Galvin, Reviewer – Sydney Morning Herald, June 27, 2008

THERE is no shortage of "cute" orang-utan pictures in Thinkers Of The Jungle. Curious baby apes guilelessly address the lens from the safety of their mothers' embrace, family groups swing joyously through the canopy and older apes demonstrate astonishing intelligence in dozens of surprising and revealing ways.

They are endearing images, guaranteed to melt all but the stoniest of hearts. But it is the counterpoint to these pictures that gives this book so much of its power.

Juxtaposed alongside the conventional, comforting imagery are shocking photos of illegally destroyed forests, decapitated orang-utan corpses left to rot among the tree stumps, obese and ruined animals fed a diet of Coca-Cola and cigarettes and, incredibly, one female who had been used as a sex slave for the men in a small village in Borneo.

Co-author Willie Smits makes no apologies for the stark and challenging shots. "What is going on is truly genocide," he says.

"Everyone wants another coffee-table book full of nice pictures. I don't have time for another coffee-table book. It should be something that shocks people wide awake.

"If the present trend continues, in two years we can forget about wild orang-utans. There is no more time."

The cause of the orang-utan genocide is the rapacious appetite of the logging and palm oil industries for the native forests of Borneo and Sumatra. Worldwide demand for palm oil, dubbed "the oil which nobody knows" in the book, is massive. It is a vital but unnoticed ingredient in thousands of everyday items ranging from lipstick to mayonnaise. High prices and huge demand have led to illegal clearing of the forests for oil palm plantations on an unprecedented scale. There is, almost literally, according to Smits, nowhere left for the apes to go.

Smits, a forest ecologist, has devoted much of the past 20 years trying to persuade the world to care about the plight of the orang-utan.

Ranged against him are governments, powerful corporations, heedless consumers and even armies. He says there have been three attempts on his life and he receives death threats weekly.

But even the possibility of an assassin's bullet has done little to dim his extraordinary passion for these animals that began in 1989 when he was offered a sickly baby in a market in Balikpapan in East Kalimantan.

Smits named the baby Uce and nursed her back to health, sealing a lifelong devotion to these gentle animals.

Two years after the encounter, and disillusioned with existing groups that were trying to help the orang-utans, Smits established the Borneo Orang-utan Survival foundation. The foundation is now the world's biggest primate conservation project, with 350 permanent staff. Smits and his staff have more than 1000 orang-utan babies in their care in two centres, munching through 5000 kilograms of fruit daily.

Thinkers Of The Jungle, co-authored with journalist Gerd Schuster and photographer Jay Ullal, is the distillation of all Smits has learned about orang-utans. One chapter is devoted to a persuasive theory that orang-utans have learned to self-medicate with the natural medicines contained in many of the leaves and roots around them. Another floats the possibility that ape "culture" could exist.

One of the most endearing episodes involves Uce and a series of Polaroid pictures snapped by Ullal and given to the animal as an ice-breaker. Clearly thrilled with the gift, Uce examined them intently, then handed them for safekeeping to a ranger she knew lived in the area. Half a dozen times since, Uce has returned to the ranger's house to "ask" to see her photos.

As well as documenting the unfolding disaster Thinkers Of The Jungle also offers a solution. Smits and his team have made a detailed analysis of areas that are suitable for plantations, much of the data gathered from risky photography on microlight flights and satellite imagery. The cogently argued conclusion is that there is room for both the palm-oil industry and the orang-utan.

Thinkers Of The Jungle defies categorisation. It is in equal measures love story, polemic and memoir. In places it is also stilted and uneven - possibly due to the fact English is a first language for neither Smits (a Dutchman) nor Schuster (from Germany).

However, in the end, this doesn't matter much, because the reader is still left with a profound sense of the scale of the tragedy being visited on these gentle animals. It is hard not to perceive the fate of the orang-utan as an allegory for all that is wrong with the way we are treating the natural world.

You can order your copy of Thinkers of the Jungle online from BOS Australia by clicking here or by calling our office (+61 3 9877 0377). Price is $60 plus postage.