The Lesser Known of Leakey’s Angels: Birute Galdikas

The entire year of 2009, I took a deep interest in learning about `primates’. The curiosity started with Ya Kwanza, the gorilla I had adopted at the Durrell Zoo. As I discovered how close the human DNA is to our large primates – gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans (between 95%-98%), I saw `hope’ in us human beings!

‘Trimates’ is what the Kenyan paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, called his three female researchers he had handpicked to study the primates – Dian Fossey who went onto study the mountain gorillas of Rwanda for 18 years, Jane Goodall who continues to be the world expert on the wild chimpanzees, and Birute Galdikas, the foremost chronicler of orangutans.

The world also calls them `Leakey’s Angels’.

This story is about the lesser known of them – Birute Galdikas.

1971- National Geographic Cover, Birute Galdikas
1971- National Geographic Cover, Birute Galdikas

In 1969, after Louis Leakey finished his lecture in UCLA, Galdikas went up to him and told him that she wanted to study the orangutans. With some persistence, he finally showed interest and got her the necessary funds. But deep down Louis Leakey was searching for someone to study the lesser known of the three apes, and Galdikas showed up.

Orangutans are found only in two habitats across the world – Borneo, Indonesia and Sumatra, Malaysia.

In 1971, when Galdikas, 25 years old, entered the Borneo jungles, this is how she describes it -`there were almost no scheduled flights to and from Borneo, no roads, no electricity, no regular mail or magazines, no telephones, no television, no hotel or water taxis on the river, no national park. Much of Borneo was still isolated and pristine.’

Almost 40 years later, in 2010, I signed up for the `Orangutan Study Tour’ led by none other than Dr. Birute Galdikas.

Several flights later, I landed in Pangkalanbun (Kalimantan, Borneo) with other people who were a part of the group, all from different countries. As our boat left the crowded port town, and began its entry into the thick forest, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, several species of birds greeted us. The humidity, the rain, the smell of the forest, added to the excitement and learning that was to unfold the next few days.

As our boat travelled upstream, the anticipation of wanting to see our first orangutan was ripe. This hard-to-spot elusive creature that we had until then only seen on TV, or as pictures, or in a zoo…!

Within 20 minutes of entering the deep forests, there it was, the magnificent golden creature, hanging right above catching the sunlight on its beautiful red coat, welcoming the group led by Galdikas.

Nothing like spotting an animal in its habitat. THAT moment is special, THAT moment can never be forgotten. THAT moment is clicked in our photographic memory forever. THAT sight stands as thick in my memory as the forest canopy in which I spotted it.

The next 7 days at Tanjung Puting National Park was a journey for the soul. Dr.Birute Galdikas, about 64 years old, led the group with a passion, mission, vision, energy, gusto that made the rest of us younger folks in the group, pause and realize how deep the creativity and energy flows when one follows the heart. Be it her confident stride through the wet, slippery forest floor OR her stories that could go into midnight as we dozed on our dining tables after the long day, she has truly dedicated every cell in her body to the conservation of the Orangutans.

Such a delightful mother-baby sight!
Such a delightful mother-baby sight!

It can be extremely disheartening – the Orangutans are endangered in Borneo, and critically endangered in Sumatra. Conservationists predict they have another 20 years left. The facts can either make your blood boil, or can make you a Birute Galdikas.

For the last 34 years, she has gone from being a primatologist to a conservationist to a policy changer, and more. What was meant to be a study of the orangutans, led to the formation of the Orangutan Care Centre where several orphaned orangutans are cared for, and nothing distracts her from this vision.

Unlike the other primates – Chimpanzees or Gorillas that can adapt to different habitats and have proved they can, the Orangutans can ONLY live in particular peat swamp forests and lowlands. The most arboreal of all apes, they spend all their time in the trees as nearly 80-90% of their diet consists of fruits. Combined with the fact that they have the longest interval of eight-years between births, these 2 facts add to the big challenge while working for their conservation.

The baby orangutans need their mothers for atleast 7 years before they can learn to forage the forest for the right kind of fruits, and start life independently. As more Orangutans are killed, we steal this important learning from the orphaned orangutans, making it extremely difficult to rehabilitate them back into the wild.

When Galdikas first arrived, illegal pet trade and lack of education & awareness among the locals were the challenges she faced. While both could be addressed with the local tribal people with years of engaging the Indonesian Government, the last decade has seen big corporates involved in forest logging for palm oil plantation. Indonesia has the largest production of palm oil, and as these precious forests are cleared for palm oil plantation, the Orangutans have lost their habitat, several of them are orphaned during the forest fires, and her challenge has moved from something that was `local’ to something that is `powerful and global’.

And yet she continues her work – to spread education, awareness and understanding of these absolutely wonderful creatures.

At 69, she is a figure of hope, resilience and perseverance.

Due to loss of habitat, the National park has alloted certain spaces as feeding centres in the Park
Due to loss of habitat, the National park has allotted certain spaces as feeding centres in the Park

In the one week I spent at Camp Leakey (the research centre), Pondok Tanggui (the feeding centre) and the Orangutan Care Centre and Facility, and looked into the eyes of every orphaned orangutan, or the handsome male, or the gentle but assertive female – I told myself, that if we did lose this being to our greed, we would have, as humans, lost 97% of our soul.

What Dr.Birute Galdikas and a whole lot of organisations are doing in Borneo and in Sumatra, is no `Little Brown Job’. It is a `BIG Brown Job’ but like everything, it started with becoming aware of whom we share this planet with, and that can be each of our `Little Brown Job’.

This could start with:

1. Visit the website: A great platform to learn about Orangutans, and the work happening in Borneo. Her Biography – ‘Reflections of Eden’ is a fabulous account of her initial years studying the orangutans.

2. Our group, who did the study tour together, returned to our respective countries and together raised $10000, so Galdikas could purchase an area of the forest to conserve it. The website offers several possibilities of donations. If it interests you, please engage in it.

3. I travelled with Irene Spencer whose travel company has been organizing the study tours with Dr.Birute Galdikas for several years. There is a detailed itinerary on the above website. Here is the link that takes you directly to that page : It makes for a fabulous holiday, even with your children.

4. As you read up about them, you will understand that there are several organisations even in Sumatra, working everyday to conserve the Sumatran Orangutans (the Sumatran species are a bit different in their colour, and both the male and female sport a beard, while the Borneo species has a darker coat and the male has large cheek pads). Please read about both the species and the work happening to conserve them.

5. And even if you cannot find time for all of the above, you can stop using products which have `palm oil’ in them. When there is no demand for such products, the corporates will be forced to look at alternatives. Reading the label of products (cosmetics included), and letting go of brands that use them, signing petitions working towards banning palm oil plantations especially in Borneo & Sumatra– this alone could be our `little brown job’.

Grateful - to be able to learn from Dr.Birute Galdikas, about the Orangutans!
Grateful – to be able to learn from Dr.Birute Galdikas, about the Orangutans!
Thankful for the company of this fabulous study group!
Thankful for the company of this fabulous study group!

If you enjoyed reading this, please share and spread the word. Thank you.


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