The first comprehensive history of the orangutan-human encounter and the thin line that separates the two beings has been launched in Canberra.
In his new book, Wild Man from Borneo, Professor Robert Cribb from The Australian National University examines how the most humanlike of all the great apes has been cherished, used and abused since coming to the attention of Europeans more than 400 years ago.
"The orangutan stands on that most uncomfortable dividing line between human and animal," Professor Cribb said. "For us, it exists on what has been described as 'the dangerous edge of the garden of nature'."
Professor Cribb is based at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. The book is co-authored by Professor Helen Gilbert from Royal Holloway College in London, and Professor Helen Tiffin, formerly of the University of Queensland.
Professor Cribb says our long-held fascination with the animal only found on Borneo and Sumatra stems from how human the animal is. These qualities include social circles beyond partners and children, but also being capable of living like hermits.
"Orangutans have personalities, and personal likes and personal dislikes. They also might have lots of friends, they might have no friends. They might be quite selective about the friends they do have," he said.
The red ape – which, as the authors show, is misnamed from the Malay word for 'person of the forest' – has long-held the attention of scientists, philosophers, artists and the public. The authors suggest it was the inspiration for the screen menace King Kong.
Professor Cribb said his book examines the tensions caused by the animal's human-like qualities.
"We examine how the orangutan's human-like attributes have been both recognised and ignored by science, philosophy, literature, theatre, museums and film," he said.
"We also trace how the ape has been recruited to arguments on topics as diverse as slavery and rape."
The book also looks at a very human preoccupation – survival. Professor Cribb says his history of the orangutan is as much about its future as its past.
"Today, the remaining 'wild men of Borneo' are under increasing threat from mining interests, logging, human population expansion, and the widespread destruction of forests," he said.
"We hope that this history will, by adding to our knowledge of this fascinating being, assist in some small way in their preservation."
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