Dr Birute Galdikas: born to be wild

People who live in the western countries rarely think about rainforests, orangutans, or the fact that they are going extinct, it just feels too far away. Well, unless they are sitting in comfortable IMAX cinema chairs munching popcorn and watching a documentary.

Renowned scientist and primatologist, Dr Birute Galdikas was featured in the film Born to be Wild, where she spoke about her passion for orangutans and Borneo rainforest and her efforts to keep them safe.

Dr Birute Galdikas. Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk
Dr Birute Galdikas. Image by Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Renowned scientist and primatologist, Dr Birute Galdikas was born in Germany in 1946, when her parents were en route to Canada from Lithuania. Having spent her childhood in Canada, she later went on to study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and zoology, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology.

Birute approached anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey to discuss her desire to study orangutans, and eventually, three years later, he found the funding to facilitate her research in Borneo, Indonesia, as he had previously helped both, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey in their studies on chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Birute’s goal was to learn more about the origin of human behaviour by studying orangutans. However, the task turned out to be much bigger. She says, “Even though I’m a scientist, the animals I’m studying are going extinct so I’ve had to get involved in political activism.”

Her research has provided unprecedented detail about orangutan ecology, social organisation and mating. Numerous awards, including the prestigious “Kalpataru” award, which is the highest honour given by the Republic of Indonesia.

To further support the orangutans Birute and her colleagues set up Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in 1986, which has now expended substantially, establishing sister organisations, in Australia, United Kingdom, Lithuania and Canada.

Palm oil is the biggest threat to free-ranging orangutans in the world. In 2012 OFI launched a new, innovative “Zero Tolerance / No-Kill” training program. It was designed to train 1000 palm oil and paper and pulp workers humane and respectful treatment of orangutans and other wildlife. The training courses comprise of talks, workshops, Q&A sessions, as well as, going into the rainforest and meeting the orangutans. “This is one of the reasons that it is important that people have opportunities to directly observe and be close to endangered wildlife. It engenders feelings and emotions. One can learn facts from a book, but nothing engages people like a close encounter with the animal itself,” says Birute during an interview with Huffington Post.

In addition to the training, OFI also provides educational programs and outreach activities, promotes Bornean rainforest restoration. Then of course there is also the more hands-on part of the job: rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured orangutans. They release about 30 orangutans every year, however, there are 200 living in the care centre at any given time. Deforestation leaves many orangutans orphans, because usually they spend seven to nine years living closely with their mothers, which is needed to prepare them for the adult life. In addition to deforestation, many primates are sold as pets, which is also one of the issues Birute is working on.

Borneo has changed a lot since the day Birute arrive to Borneo, forty years ago. “There was absolutely no television until the 1980’s. What happened because there was no television, is that there were many ceremonies between the local tribes (the Dayaks), many community celebrations that seem to have ceased once television came into the picture. People now have other forms of entertainment. Borneo was a totally different place…and the main difference ecologically was that the tropical rainforest was absolutely everywhere,” explains Birute.

“People who really get to know orangutans always fall under their spell. That doesn’t happen so much with Chimpanzees for example. I am not comparing but Chimpanzees are much more emotional, more human. Orangutans sit back and meditate,” adds Birute.

The article was originally published on Society of Biology blog on 11th December 2014.