A DARK PLACE IN THE JUNGLE

By Linda Spalding

Algonquin. 269 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone

To describe A Dark Place in the Jungle as a book about orangutans would be unfair -- to the orangutans, at least. Originally published in Canada under the title The Follow, it's more about one woman (the author) trying to follow another woman (a primatologist) who follows the orangutans but doesn't like being followed by the author.

And who can blame the primatologist? The author, Linda Spalding, approaches her, wanting to write a book. But there's already a book, written by and about the subject herself (Birute Galdikas), and even a movie in the making. Spalding not only wants to tag along and snoop about in Galdikas's jungle lab in Borneo; she wants to bring along her two grown daughters and think about what it all means: the orangutans, the rainforests, her daughters, her own serious efforts "to waken those senses and find my most elemental self."

Not on your life, you can hear the orangutan lady thinking, as she steers her stalker toward her very own foundation, the OFI (the Orangutan Foundation International, which runs ecotours designed, one suspects, not only for tourists but also for followers like Spalding). Galdikas herself is too busy being famous on two continents, lecturing, fund-raising, and all the rest. Besides, she's under fire for her controversial methods of orangutan rehabilitation, for profiting from ecotourism, and for what might be called general arrogance. If Spalding wants to drive her and her kids around Los Angeles during a hectic tour for Galdikas's book, fine. But a real interview with a nosy follower? Who needs it?

Spalding opts for her own follow ("a form of research in which the subject is observed from a distance"), first in Borneo with her two daughters, then in Sumatra, then once more in Borneo, each time led by Riska, a young Indonesian woman from the Dayak tribe. Traveling mostly by private kelotok, a river boat on which the passengers eat and sleep as well, Spalding journeys up and down river and through the main orangutan outposts: Camp Leakey, Galdikas's research station in Borneo's Tanjung Puting national park; and Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra.

A worthy investigation, no question. What with the Indonesian government's program to resettle citizens and the racket in timber concessions, the assault on rainforests has upset the ecological balance and threatens extinction of the orangutans. Also, the government ban on buying, selling, or owning orangutans as pets has naturally jacked up prices and demand. (Baby orangutans now cost anywhere from $100 in Jakarta to about $25,000 in the United States.)

To capture a young orangutan necessitates killing its mother, since it remains inseparable from its mother for about the first 10 years of its life. Nowadays, the plunder is carried out by poachers as well as plantation workers who shoot orangutan mothers caught feeding on palm-oil trees. Then there is the debate about rehabilitation: how to re-train the orphans for re-entry into the wild; where to release them, given their potential for spreading new diseases among the wild population, and so forth.

All of this could be interesting. That it isn't bears out a theory of mine: The rainforest is not a good place for idle speculation. (Maybe it's all that oppressive heat that renders every earnest line of inquiry null and void.) And Spalding does a fair amount of speculating. "Had we been other kinds of apes up there on Mount Bromo, instead of Homo sapiens, we might have been watching the sunrise," she writes, "but we would not have been thinking of Mecca. . . What would we have been thinking?"

Still scratching my head, I come across another puzzle: "In the middle of our century, Tom Harrison found a 35,000-year-old skull in the Niah caves of Sarawak . . . but when it was the brain case for a living, breathing man, he had already forced his Negrito cousins into the hills after taking a daughter or two back to his cave." Now, will somebody please tell me why this Tom Harrison was so mean to his Negrito cousins and swinish to his daughters?

And why haven't I grasped the meaning of felled trees until now? "Because we understand death," the author explains, "we know that a tree disappears forever, that something is gone that will never come back. A hole is a terrible thing."

How true. I wonder if I should pass this on to the folks at Gore 2000.

Wendy Law-Yone's has written two novels, "The Coffin Tree" and "Irrawaddy Tango," set in Southeast Asia.