Canadian Biruté Galdikas’ 40-year quest to seek harmony for
orangutans forges on
Excerpts from featured story in ELLE Canada, August 2013
It's tea time in Borneo, and Canadian Biruté Galdikas has a particularly imposing guest who just swung in from the rainforest. Tom, a 300-pound wild orangutan and alpha male, could quickly turn this party into a deadly encounter if protocol isn’t followed. The softspoken and self-assured 67-year-old Galdikas places a mug of sweet, milky tea within reach of Tom’s massive black leathery fingers. “I have to serve Tom first; orangutans are hierarchical,” she explains. Meanwhile, her eco-tourist guests, who have come here to learn first-hand about Galdikas’ work with wild orangutans, must wait and stay alert: Alpha males are unpredictable, as a visiting Julia Roberts learned when she was momentarily grabbed by one.
An orphaned juvenile orangutan plays at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Borneo. Orangutans are an endangered species. There are only two places in the world where these “people of the forest,” as the word means in Malay, roam in the wild: Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, known as “Kalimantan.”
Galdikas as a young woman on the cover of National Geographic hangs in a cabin at Camp Leakey. Galdikas first came to Borneo when she was a 25-year-old Ph.D. student. Her research on the ecology and behaviour of wild orangutans at Tanjung Puting became the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation and landed her on the cover of National Geographic—twice.
The Sekonyer River leads to Galdikas’ Camp Leakey research base and home in the rainforest that she founded 40 years ago. The unspoiled beauty made Galdikas feel like she had found Eden—despite ever present leeches, disease-carrying mosquitoes and relentless humidity.
A mother and child voice their discontent at Camp Leakey where wild orangutans move about freely. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that there are fewer than 50,000 orangutans remaining in the wild—85 percent of them in Kalimantan—and that’s half the number that existed 60 years ago.
Two orphaned infant orangutans have become inseparable at the Orangutan Care Center. Young orangutans are highly dependent on their mothers; they are sometimes carried until they are five years old and nursed until eight. At the centre, they must be bottlefed and carried by human surrogate mothers for years until they can care for themselves in the wild.
Dr. Galdikas with an orphaned juvenile orangutan. The palm-oil industry not only puts orangutans—who spend 95 percentof their lives in trees—at risk by destroying their habitat but also contributes to violent deaths. “In their search for food, orangutans wander into plantations and are killed or maimed by workers—by beating or machete—leaving orphaned babies,” says Galdikas.
Canadian Ruth Linsky (right), the Orangutan Foundation International’s senior intern and field volunteer coordinator, and local staff act as surrogate mothers for orphans at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine. Ninety percent of the orangutans are orphans whose mothers were killed in palm fields.