cover image The Orangutans

The Orangutans

Robert D. Kaplan, Gisela T. Kaplan, Lesley Rogers. Basic Books, $23 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-7382-0290-7

This must be the Year of the Orangutan: this latest of several introductions and guides focused on those orange-haired animals will reward anyone who cares about primate history, habitat and behavior. Researchers Kaplan and Rogers (Minds of Their Own; Orangutans in Borneo) teach at the University of New England in Australia, but their compact volume isn't a dry monograph--or a memoir or perky picture book. Instead, it's a quick, clear explanation of how Pongo pygmaeus lives, and what it does. It explains how orangutan DNA differs from ours, and from gorillas', and how orangutan arms, hands and feet have come to suit life in the trees. Orangutans seem to know where in a forest their beloved (and stinky) durian fruit grows, and when it will ripen; they also exercise complex infant and child care. ""Learning"" and ""problem solving and tool use"" rate chapters, with striking field observations by the authors and others: the creatures play tricks and have a surprisingly nuanced sex life. Orangutan facial and gestural signals are just close enough to our own to mislead: ""smiles"" usually react to threats, and a two-handed ""wave"" likely means ""get out of my face."" Kaplan and Rogers's prose neither sparkles nor drags; while reporting their own experiences, the two keep personal anecdotes and flashy comments to a minimum. As in most books of this kind, conservation issues occupy the last chapter. The authors conclude that orangutans can survive only as long as their native rain forest does: they're ""too large to keep in enclosures, too intelligent to keep in zoos, too self-aware to keep in laboratories, and... too close to us"" for us to ignore their needs. (June)