If your knowledge of orangutans consists of what you remember from Clint Eastwood comedies of 30 years ago or recent stories about the adorable new baby at the Houston Zoo, you can catch up on those amazing primates in Born to be Wild 3D, the newest IMAX film opening Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Narrated by Morgan Freeman and with a soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh, this short but delightful movie tells two parallel stories with a common goal: The efforts of rescue organizations, both headed by women, to save the lives of orphaned baby orangutans and baby elephants, with the goal of returning them to their natural habitats.
Viewers are transported into the lush rainforests of Borneo with world-renowned primatologist Biruté Mary Galdikas, who has dedicated her life to the study of the wild orangutan and to the rugged Kenyan savannah with celebrated elephant authority Daphne Sheldrick. The large IMAX format and impressive use of 3D technology make the viewer feel as if he is swinging through the treetops with the orangutans and close enough to pat the trunks of the gentle elephants.
First we meet Galdikas, the founder of Orangutan Foundation International. Canadian-born of Lithuanian parents, Galdikas grew up with a love of nature and a desire to become an explorer. After emigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s and earning degrees in psychology, zoology and anthropology, she met Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey. He helped her obtain funding for orangutan studies, as he had done previously with both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey for their respective studies on chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.
In 1971, ready to study orangutans, Galdikas arrived in one of the world's most remote places, Tanjung Puting Reserve in Indonesian Borneo, despite warnings from her professors and others that "it couldn't be done." The thinking then was that it was impossible to study orangutans in the wild; they were too elusive and wary, living almost entirely in deep swamps.
Despite the lack of telephones, roads, electricity, or regular mail service, Galdikas persevered. Over the last 40 years she has brought to light not only the ecology and behavior of the wild orangutan, but also the problems brought on by poaching and destruction of their habitat, the tropical rain forest.
According to most wildlife-monitoring organizations, orangutans are a highly-endangered species that used to be common throughout southeast Asia. Now they are found primarily in Borneo, with a small population in Sumatra; estimates of the current population are less than 60,000.
In the Malay language, "orang" means "person" and "utan" is derived from "hutan," which means "forest." Thus, orangutan literally means "person of the forest." Babies are totally dependent on their mothers for the first two years of their lives; Dr. Galdikas' organization helps raise these orphans by bottle-feeding them and allowing them to cling to a keeper's body until natural weaning age (2-3 years).
The other heroine of Born to be Wild 3D is Sheldrick, born in Kenya in 1934 to British parents when the country was still under British rule. From 1955 to 1976 she worked alongside her husband David, the founder of Kenya's giant Tsavo National Park. There she raised and rehabilitated orphan animals of many species: not only the elephant, but also the black rhino, buffalo, zebra, impala, warthog, and many others.
After her husband's death in 1976, she chose to continue this important work, and at the age of 77 is considered one of the foremost experts in animal husbandry and wildlife conservation. She lives and works in the Nairobi National Park, courtesy of the Kenyan government, and administers the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
Elephants live in close, social groups. Babies are orphaned for many reasons, commonly due to poaching of adults by humans. The movie shows baby elephants cared for by human keepers from the Sheldrick Trust: each elephant is paired with a keeper who feeds them by day, and sleeps with them by night. The babies do need their "mothers" as a scene in the film shows a stranded baby elephant with a herd of bulls (males). The bull elephants will not look after the baby, so the human keepers run off the bulls, capture the baby, and return him to the orphan herd.
There are also scenes of the babies being bottle-fed milk, using a formula perfected by Sheldrick to take the place of the mother's milk these elephants should be having. This is all-important as elephants depend on milk for the first two years of their lives.
"Spending so much time among the orphaned elephants and orangutans in this film was a life-changing experience," said producer/writer Drew Fellman. "And IMAX 3D makes it possible to share that wonder with the audience in a very profound way that takes us directly into the lives and struggles of these amazing animals."
Rated G, and at only 40 minutes, Born to be Wild 3D can and should be enjoyed by humans of all ages.