Biruté Mary Galdikas Knows Orangutans

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Into the Forest: How Dr. Biruté Galdikas Unlocked the Secrets of the Orangutan.

As noisy speedboats zip down the Sekonyer River in a remote part of Indonesian Borneo, a lone research station emerges from the lush greens of the rainforest. Known as Camp Leakey, this modest field site is the lifework of Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas – one of the world’s foremost experts on wild orangutans and their threatened forest habitat.

Galdikas’s passion for understanding and protecting orangutans dates back over 45 years. She made her first fateful trip to Borneo in 1971 shortly after finishing her graduate studies at UCLA. Once there, the budding primatologist ventured deep into steamy rainforest in search one of humankind’s elusive cousins – the red ape of Borneo. Thus began a lifetime mission that would not only reshape scientific understanding of orangutans but also ignite Galdikas’s relentless fight to save them from extinction.

At Camp Leakey, Galdikas and her team rigorously documented the ecology and social behavior of the region’s native orangutans for decades. Braving leeches, snakes, malarial insects, and occasional run-ins with bears, tigers and rhinos, they tracked wild orangutans daily through the dense jungle. Meticulous observations led to groundbreaking discoveries about everything from orangutan diet and tool use to mating habits and infant development in their natural habitat.

“The wealth of new information we gathered at Camp Leakey attracted scientists from all over the world,” Galdikas reflects. “Putting wild orangutans on the scientific map led to deeper respect for their advanced intelligence and emotional sensitivities – and greater understanding of risks they face today.”

Galdikas’ research revealed Bornean orangutans as unsung gardeners of the rainforest. The apes spread hard-shelled tree seeds through their feces, replanting disturbed forests across their territory. She also brought the first real insights into orangutan motherhood in the wild. By gaining their trust, her team documented mothers patiently nurturing infants for six to eight years of “orangutan childhood” until they could independently survive.

But Galdikas soon recognized a far bigger threat to orangutan survival than harsh rainforest conditions. From the mid-1980’s, she witnessed illegal logging and land-clearing by palm oil plantations decimating Borneo’s old-growth forests. Vast swaths of untouched jungle disappeared before her eyes. As fruit trees and other food sources vanished, orphaned apes began appearing at Camp Leakey’s gates – weak, starving and clinging to life.

“Seeing those bewildered young apes who just lost their entire world was heartbreaking,” says Galdikas. “I realized studying orangutans was not enough – I had to protect their home to save them.”

So Galdikas launched into high-gear activism for orangutan conservation and advocacy. Her grassroots organization, Orangutan Foundation International, led public campaigns and funded by rescue, rehabilitation and release for orphaned apes. She pressed Indonesian officials to crack down on illegal logging in protected preserves for endangered orangutans and other wildlife.

Today, the extinction clock is ticking faster for the great red ape of Asia. Both Bornean and the Sumatran orangutan species are critically endangered as palm oil and paper pulp operations accelerates forest loss. From over 230,000 a century ago, fewer than 120,000 orangutans remain across fragmented pockets of rainforest.

Yet Galdikas continues her uphill crusade to halt further decline, partnering with government agencies and other conservation groups across Indonesia. Education and eco-tourism efforts bring new hope, as locals take pride in protecting the iconic ape.

“If we cannot preserve the home of our remarkable wild cousins, humankind will become that much poorer,” says Galdikas. “Once lush rainforests full of orangutans are gone, they’re gone forever.”

Now in her mid-70’s yet indefatigable, Dr. Galdikas persists in speaking out for Borneo’s great red apes and battling for protected sanctuaries from her remote jungle outpost. Thanks to her pioneering field work and lifetime of advocacy, both the scientific and conservation communities have come to respect the orangutans as an extraordinary species and vital part of our shared natural heritage. Against heavy odds, Galdikas continues to fight to ensure orangutans remain where they belong – thriving in the heart of Borneo’s primeval forests.

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