cover image A Dark Place in the Jungle: Science, Orangutans, and Human Nature

A Dark Place in the Jungle: Science, Orangutans, and Human Nature

Linda Spalding. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $22.95 (300pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-226-0

In 1995, novelist Spalding (The Paper Wife) traveled to Indonesia with her two daughters to work on a book about orangutan researcher Birut Galdikas, who, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, was a prot g e of anthropologist Louis Leakey. That book turns out to be a sophisticated mixture of memoir, science writing and travel essay; a disturbing expos of complex, sometimes counterproductive, attempts to protect an endangered species; and a knowing self-portrait of a perceptive, sympathetic woman trying to make sense of the ambitions and disappointments around her. Spalding left Toronto with her daughters hoping to gain insight into Galdikas's work by visiting her ""research"" station, Camp Leakey, in Borneo. Once there, she writes, she encountered unexpected hostility, because she hadn't come under the auspices of the expensive Orangutan Federation International tour--whose profits, according to Spalding, benefit Galdikas's family more than the orangutans--and because her questions were too probing. Unfazed, the author deciphered her subject from a distance. Her picture of Galdikas as a young woman who came to study orangutans in 1971 and is now holding them illegally in her house, of altruistic scientific inquiry derailed by the temptations of power and money, provokes both repugnance and some measure of understanding. Spalding's lush descriptions of the rainforest are complemented by observations of the guides, forest rangers, villagers and scientists she met, as well as by her extensive reading on ecotourism and evolution. She distinguishes herself by her respect for the local population and by her attempts to comprehend the disparate opinions about Galdikas and the proper treatment of orangutans. Her candid recounting of her fluctuating emotions combines with meditations on motherhood and on the course of her own life to broaden her book's scope even beyond its potent portraiture. Author tour. (May)