Conservationist and Orangutan Advocate
Dr. Gary Shapiro, a pioneer in great ape communication, was the first person to teach symbols and signs to examine learning and communication abilities of orangutans. He initially trained and studied an orangutan in a zoo, but soon moved on to living with ex-captive orangutans and teaching them signs in the wilds of Borneo, which was the first such study of any great ape in their natural environment. This experience transformed him to embrace conservation, environmentalism, and orangutan advocacy, over a five-decade period.
Shapiro began his unpredictable journey into the world of orangutans after being given the opportunity to leave his doctoral research project (with chimpanzees at the University of Oklahoma) for the distant forests of Borneo, where he taught sign language to a number of ex-captive orangutans destined to return to the wild. His work, Out of the Cage, examines not only his historical exploration of the red ape’s intellect and abilities to learn signs, but also his realization that orangutans, whose name translates to “persons of the forest,” deserve to be called such. He discovered that they really were persons who should be endowed with all basic rights. Along the way, Shapiro reveals the true stories about the orangutans he befriended as well as the mental, physical, and emotional challenges he encountered during his first two years immersed in a remote jungle outpost.
Ever since his first visit to Borneo, Shapiro has supported conservation efforts within Tanjung Puting Reserve (now national park) while conducting his signing research with ex-captive orangutans and authoring a short post-doctoral study on the Sekonyer River ecology. His interest and appreciation of rainforest biodiversity led to his realization that the fate of the critically endangered great red ape is inexorably tied to the future of the rainforests, the “lungs of the earth”. Since saving orangutans (and the many other species) really meant saving rainforests, Shapiro co-founded the first orangutan advocacy organization, the Orangutan Foundation International, to address that need and later co-founded the Orang Utan Republik (The Orangutan Project-USA) where he presently serves as President.
Building and running conservation education organizations has been Shapiro’s major preoccupation over the past four decades. His fervent hope is to find and inspire younger people who will help ensure the long-term survival of this noble species, these “persons of the forest”.