Dr. Gary Shapiro, Orangutan Fan

Dr. Gary Shapiro, Orangutan Fan

by Rita Goldner

Dr Shapiro

Today’s blog is a tribute to Gary L. Shapiro, Ph.D., who  fact-checked my picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy, and continues to be an inspiration to me.

Dr. Shapiro began his studies of orangutans at the Fresno California City Zoo in the early 1970s, and he was the first person to teach them to communicate through sign language. He later traveled to Borneo, where he continued to teach American Sign Language, this time to wild orangutans in their native habitat. His involvement quickly evolved from a scientific observation and writing his dissertation, to a passion and commitment to helping these beautiful creatures avoid imminent extinction. He firmly believed that to succeed with his conservation agenda, he must facilitate the education of the local population in the importance of biodiversity and protection of the environment.

When orangutan fans like me read news stories about wildlife habitat destruction and rainforest encroachment for palm oil plantations, we can easily jump to the outraged conclusion that penalties must be stiffer. But I learned through my research while writing my book that penalties haven’t been effective enough to curb the destruction. During my writing period, I gleaned information and opinions from several wildlife experts’ Facebook pages, and one day I threw out the question: “Do you think education is more effective than penalties are, in trying to stop wildlife and habitat abuses?” I was trying to get a consensus of professional opinions, and the answers overwhelmingly favored education.

Jane Goodall herself wrote back and said “We do! This is part of the basis of our approach to conservation.”

Now that I contemplate it, hasn’t it always been futile to use fines, boycotts, embargos, sanctions and even prisons to thwart an activity where the financial gains considerably outweigh the risk of penalty? The “Money talks!” philosophy has ruled in the illegal orangutan pet trade business, as well as the business of clearing land for plantations. It was the illegal pet trade that precipitated the need to care for orphaned baby orangutans confiscated from the pet traders. This is where Dr. Shapiro began his work in Borneo, with another of my heroes, Dr. Birute Galdikas. (My tribute to her was posted on October 6, 2015 in the archives of RitaGoldnerIllustrations.com/blog.)

Dr. Shapiro worked at Camp Leakey, training the orphans to climb and forage, to build nests, and to practice all the other skills a wild orangutan needs, in preparation for re-release. He came back to the USA for a time to earn a doctorate in zoology in 1985 from the University of Oklahoma, then returned to Borneo to resume his research and rescue work. He soon realized that to ensure the long-term survival of this endangered species, he had to involve the local people in finding solutions. Indonesians must be empowered with the education and resources to conserve biodiversity for themselves,

Dr. Shapiro’s stated goal was: “To educate the people of Indonesia to appreciate and value their natural resources and rich biodiversity so it might be saved from extinction.” Toward this end, he and his wife Inggriani founded Orang Utan Republik Education Initiative (OUREI).

This nonprofit organization focuses on outreach and education about orangutans, particularly in Sumatra where the species is critically endangered. They have a fundraising website that states:

Orangutans are critically endangered because their habitat is being destroyed, and local people do not understand the consequences of this destruction. We want to help provide higher education so more people from Sumatra and Borneo can become empowered to help save the orangutan for the long term. Our campaign is to raise funds to keep this successful program running for years to come. You can help.

Please take a positive step toward a healthy earth by making a donation.

Thanks for reading. Your comments are welcome.

Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book,
Orangutan: A Rita Goldner2Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure (available for iPads only) and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.

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3 Responses to Dr. Gary Shapiro, Orangutan Fan

  1. Marcie Brock says:

    Rita – you are such an excellent writer, and your posts are always so interesting and informative. Thanks for continuing to blog with us! Laura (aka Marcie Brock)


  2. bchatzkel says:

    It’s so good to hear that lots of folks and organizations are “orangutan fans.”


  3. Rita, this is fascinating. I always wondered who introduced sign language to orangutans. Human babies are now being taught sign language too, as you probably know, since their thought processes (I need a change, I want some water) mature sooner than their verbal skills. You make a powerful point about education vs. legal penalties. If people have no idea what plantation encroachment is doing to habitat, another law is just another incomprehensible rule. And for those who do understand encroachment vs. habitat, others can be hired to take the penalty. Thanks for another thoughtful post.


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