World’s foremost authority on orangutans
"I’ve always wanted to study the one primate who never left the Garden of Eden. I want to know what we left behind."
Sweat pours down her face. She feels thirsty. Swatting at mosquitoes, Biruté Galdikas balances on a slippery log. The logs are always slippery. “I don’t know why, but they always are,” she thinks. Then she slips. She tries to avoid touching a thorn vine and a tree with toxic bark as she regains her balance. She stands waist-deep in tea-coloured swamp water in the dark, dank Indonesian rainforest, her joggers, socks and jeans soaking wet. Two pairs of socks, one tucked under and one pulled over her jeans, keep out leeches and other unspeakable menaces that thrive in the murky water. She’s wearing a khaki, long-sleeved shirt with lots of pockets and a cotton jungle hat she bought at an army surplus store.
Catching her breath as she stands in the swamp, she spots two huge male orangutans standing face to face, glaring at each other’s massive cheek pads. They’re not that close, and she can only glimpse their shadowy forms in the dense foliage, but she can tell they are ready to fight for the chance to mate with the female that Galdikas has been tracking for days. The sounds are horrific: snarling, grunting, loud and frightening. The pair wrestle and tumble, smashing through the brush, trying to bite each other on the head and shoulders. Finally, one flees into the bush. Moving forward to see better, Galdikas snaps a twig, distracting the other one. Suddenly, he grabs two thick vines, swings down until he hangs only a metre above her head and stares into her eyes, so close that her nostrils tingle from the stale odour of his sweat.
In 34 years of jungle observations, Galdikas has had only a handful of such close encounters, so rare are orangutans’ meetings with humans or even with each other. But this fellow’s message is clear: “Leave me alone.”
Galdikas has learned more than any other human being about what it means to be an orangutan, and what she has found out is that orangutans like to be left alone. An adult male’s range is at least 40 square kilometres, and he can spend weeks loping slowly from tree to tree eating fruits, nuts, insects, leaves and bark without meeting any of his kin.
Biruté Galdikas has devoted her life to studying orangutans. She wanted to know why these great apes did not evolve the way our ancestors did into human beings. Human beings evolved from a different type of ancestral ape that learned how to live in communities. Orangutans never learned this. They have not changed in millions of years because the forests where they live have not changed. They have always had enough food and space to continue their solitary existence.
NOTE: Many people ask how they can volunteer to help Biruté Galdikas work with orangutans. Volunteers are always welcome, but they must pay their own room and board (about $5 a day) to stay in Tanjung Puting Park. A typical stay is six weeks. Galdikas cannot respond to individual requests. Please contact the Orangutan Foundation International:
From the age of five, Biruté Galdikas has wondered where human beings came from. She knew they had evolved from ancient apes but she wanted to know more. When she was 12, she loved to go into the wilder sections of High Park in Toronto. There she would pretend she was a Huron or Iroquois Native slipping through the woods, at one with nature. She spent hours like this, quietly and secretly observing the wild animals in the park.
When she went to university, she combined her love of nature with her curiosity about the great apes by studying psychology and biology. At 22, while she was working on her master of arts (MA) degree in anthropology at the University of California in Los Angeles, Galdikas met Dr. Louis Leakey, who was famous for discovering fossils of early humans in Africa. Leakey was helping Dian Fossey with her studies of mountain gorillas, and Jane Goodall, who was documenting the behaviour of chimpanzees. Together with the National Geographic Society, Leakey helped Galdikas set up a research camp in Borneo to study orangutans. Her husband, Pak Bohap, a Dayak rice farmer in Borneo, is a tribal president and co-director of the orangutan program there.