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:
Orangutan Foundation International
822 S. Wellesley Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90049, U.S.A.
Tel: +1 (310) 207-1655; fax: +1 (310) 207-1556
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.
Anthropology is the study of human beings, but Galdikas studies physical anthropology, looking to our evolutionary ancestors and relatives, the great apes, to help understand the mysteries of human nature. Galdikas has been working and living in the rainforest for more than 30 years. During this time she became the co-founder of Orangutan Foundation International and other orangutan support groups all over the world. She has written articles for National Geographic, Science and other journals as well as several books on orangutans.
At any given time, about 200 orangutans live in the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine Galdikas set up in Kalimantan Tengah, Indonesian Borneo. The centre releases about 30 into the wild every year, but more are always coming in, found as orphans as a result of palm-oil plantation development, which is destroying the tropical rainforest at an alarming rate. Galdikas spends an increasing amount of time in conservation and activism efforts to preserve the wild rainforest where her study animals live. In 1998 she persuaded the Indonesian government to set aside 76,000 hectares as an orangutan reserve. She is currently fighting to halt the expansion of palm-oil plantations in the 400,000-hectare Tanjung Puting National Park. “Even though I’m a scientist, the animals I’m studying are going extinct so I’ve had to get involved in political activism,” says Galdikas. She believes there are only about 6,000 orangutans left in the park.
Decades of observation have resulted in many new discoveries about orangutans. “We now know they have the longest birth interval of all mammals,” says Galdikas. A female will have her first baby at the age of 15 or 16, but then an average of eight years will pass before the second baby comes. This is mostly because of the long period that a young orangutan must remain with its mother to learn how to live in the rainforest. There are many dangers and hundreds of different ways of finding and preparing food.
Galdikas and her team have contributed to veterinary medical knowledge about orangutans, including treatments for malaria, tapeworm parasites and throat-pouch infections.
1. The Rain Forest
The tropical rainforest is one of the most stable natural places on the planet Earth. A huge variety of plants and animals thrives there, and nothing has changed for millions of years. This is why the common ancestor for all apes, and humans, may have been somewhat like an orangutan. Orangutans have no serious predators other than humans. Their dietary knowledge of the irregular fruiting patterns of tropical plants indicates how intelligent they are. It also explains their solitary lifestyle and the long interval between births. A big animal needs a lot of foraging territory, without too many competitors around who eat the same kinds of food.
2. Structural Brachiators
Orangutans are structural brachiators, which means they are built to swing from branches with their upper limbs, but they have become too heavy to move quickly like this. Adult orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling animals on Earth, averaging about 100 kilograms for males.
3. Food Collecting
In this photograph, a mother orangutan collects sweet habu-habu bark for her baby. This is one of over 400 types of food orangutans enjoy in the rainforest, and Galdikas has tried many of them herself. One way she has learned to spot orangutans in the dense foliage is to listen for the sound of fruit peels and pits dropping to the ground.
4. The baby is reaching for the food.
Through the repeated transfer of food between mother and baby, young orangutans learn what kinds of food are good to eat and how to eat them. They watch and imitate. They learn by trial and error. For instance, they might try eating the peel of a fruit and discover that it is too bitter. After making this error once or twice, they don’t try it again.
Baby orangutans cling to their mother’s fur until they are four years old. They are very dependent and remain with the mother for nine years. Females have perhaps four offspring in a lifetime. Orangutan males live solitary lives, looking for other orangutans only to mate. The orangutan’s natural lifespan is about 60 to 70 years in the wild. In zoos they normally die at around 35 years of age, but some have lived for up to 56 years in captivity.
Galdikas would like to know the relationship of males to females in a given range of rainforest habitat. Males come and go. How far do they go when they disappear? How many females do they mate with? How far apart are the females? Over how large an area of rainforest does one single male mate, and how successful are these matings? These are all open questions.
Another thing that bothers Galdikas is the way she sees orangutan behaviour appearing in modern men and women. It’s a mystery to her why human beings who are normally social, gregarious creatures, are becoming more individualistic like orangutans. She says, “What I have learned from orangutans is that we humans must not turn our backs on our own biological heritage. Modern society promotes the ideal of the rugged individual. For men you have the Clint Eastwood persona — the Marlborough Man. For women you have single moms raising their kids alone. The ideal Western male rides into town, fights the bad guys, falls in love and then heads off into the sunset. He is strong and solitary just like an orangutan, but he represents an evolutionary dead end. Many of today’s problems are a result of abandoning our human biological roots. We must look to our distinctive gregarious human heritage; living and working in family groups and communities if we want to be successful. Otherwise we are just stressed out ‘orangutans’ in an urban setting.”
Biruté Galdikas and Karl Ammann, Great Ape Odyssey, Harry N. Abrams, 2005.
Biruté Galdikas, Reflections of Eden, Back Bay Books, 1996.
Biruté Galdikas, Orangutan Odyssey, Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
Biruté Galdikas, “Orangutans: Indonesia’s People of the Forest,” National Geographic, p. 444, October 1975.
Biruté Galdikas, “Living with Orangutans,” National Geographic, p. 830, June 1980.
The Orangutan Foundation International website.
So You Want to Be a Physical Anthropologist
Galdikas advises anyone interested in a career in physical anthropology or wildlife ecology to begin by volunteering. “Get as much volunteer experience as possible,” she says. You can ask at veterinary clinics, zoos and animal field hospitals. Opportunities abound, but you have to look for them. Good places to search are newsletters, journals and websites of organizations that work with animals. For instance, the American Society of Primatologists’ newsletter would be a good place to look if you are interested in orangutans and other apes or monkeys. Call professors at universities, too. “If you can’t do primates you can do chipmunks,” says Galdikas, who spent a summer as a teen working at an archaeological dig on an Apache reservation in Arizona. Another year she worked on a dig in Yugoslavia. “Archaeological experience will give you training in different cultures.”
A career in physical anthropology could lead to many jobs, such as veterinarian, zookeeper, science reporter, high school or university teacher, field conservationist, as well as government, organization or parks policy developer. It takes five to 12 years to get a degree, depending on whether or not you get a graduate degree.
Galdikas also advises young people to prepare themselves by doing a lot of reading; be aware of opportunities and talk to people. She got the idea of approaching Louis Leakey while talking to her pit partner on a dig in Arizona. Get a university degree — preferably a doctorate or a master’s — in biosciences or anthropology and learn a skill that others don’t have. For instance, learn dna gene sequencing, geographical information systems (gis) mapping, or hormone analysis. “You want something that gives you a new way to analyze things. It’s like having a key to open the data in new ways,” says Galdikas.
The thing she likes most about her career is the feeling she gets when she discovers new things. “Just being with the animals in their pristine rainforest environment is a thrill, but it’s always very difficult and demanding.” She also had to learn diplomacy and patience, due to the many long negotiations required to get governments to preserve orangutan habitat.
“The saddest thing about my career is that orangutans are going extinct,” says Galdikas, but she feels she has made a difference through her foundations and environmental activism.