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Waiting for Galdikas - Orangutans are easier to find

A DARK PLACE IN THE JUNGLE By Linda Spalding Algonquin 300 pp., $22.95

This many-layered adventure may leave readers troubled with new questions about humanity's increasing encroachment into the natural world. Linda Spaulding takes us to the rain forests of Borneo to pursue the illusive foster mother and protector of orangutans, Birute Galdikas.

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The picture presented swings from primitive and natural beauty to corrupt and power-hungry competitors.

Spalding makes the initial trip with her two grown daughters as a single unit, "like a woman with six arms and six legs." Despite her best efforts, getting to know and interview the third of Leakey's "angel" ape researchers is a constant challenge.

Like Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas has a passion for her study of great apes in their natural habitat. She appears to have less respect for humans.

Spalding ultimately makes three trips to the Camp Leakey research station in Borneo, without ever having a satisfactory interaction with her prior heroine.

However, she does get well-acquainted with several vivacious orangutans. One locks her daughter in an out-house and later splashes Galdikas with water in a crocodile-infested river. Another steals her valuable notebook of observations and gleefully takes it to a treetop.

Yet the main picture of these partially tamed apes is a sad one. Rehabilitation into their decreasing habitat is fraught with difficulty.

Fascinating tidbits of information are sprinkled throughout this chronicle of mentally and physically challenging excursions. For instance, England hosts 35 native species of trees, whereas Borneo claims 780. Two-and-a-half acres in the Kalimantan forest may contain 150 species of trees, with only one example of each.

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A cleared forest may regenerate, but its capacity to feed orangutans will not be restored for 60 years. One orangutan needs 500 acres just to survive!

We are reminded that rain forests have supported life for millions of years without any serious imbalance. But now, the forests of Borneo have turned into a "cash machine" and are half of their original size.

Endangered wildlife habitat is not a new revelation, but Spaulding ponders this challenge with fresh insights through vivid word pictures of the orangutan world. The author's sensory descriptions reveal her acute powers of observation in this vanishing Eden.

She also meets and interviews many of the people connected with the survival of this closest-to-human species, as well as those struggling between economic gain from logging and burgeoning tourism. A valued relationship with a native Dayak guide - the only woman in a male-dominated profession - results in a home-stay in an idyllic native village.

This intimate and deeply thoughtful chronicle of a woman's awakening to the many challenges facing orangutans - and the earth as a whole - leaves the reader disheartened.

Economic greed, poachers, smugglers, politicians, scientists, environmental activists, and even eco-tourism all impact the future of the orangutan and other life forms.

"Wherever we go we make things difficult for local species," Spaulding laments, and wherever we go we learn that "anything is made possible by money."

A competent and deeply personal writer, Spalding freely shares her judgment and her perplexity. We learn little of the woman who claims to be the great protector of orphan orangutans, Birute Galdikas, except that she is maligned by the Indonesian government and many who have worked with her. But we get to know writer Linda Spalding and her thought-provoking views very well indeed.

*Marjorie D. Hamlin is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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