As a young girl, Biruté Mary Galdikas had a dream that she would go to the forests of Southeast Asia and study the least-known of all the great apes, the elusive Asian orangutan. As a graduate student at UCLA, she approached Louis Leakey and he promised to help her. After almost three years of waiting, finally in September 1971, Biruté set out for Indonesia and initiated the longest continuous study of any wild orangutan population in the history of science. Her dream finally became a reality.
During the initial journey to Indonesian Borneo in 1971 Biruté visited Jane Goodall at her chimpanzee study site in Africa’s Gombe National Park. Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Biruté all shared a common mentor in Louis Leakey and were later termed the “Trimates.” After visiting Louis in Nairobi, Biruté said goodbye to him for what would be the last time. On November 6th 1971 Biruté and her then husband Rod Brindamour finally arrived in what later became Tanjung Puting National Park. It was within the first few weeks of her arrival at Camp Leakey, named in honor of her mentor, that she began the groundbreaking conservation and research work that continues to this day 50 years later.
Biruté Mary Galdikas and Rod Brindamour arrived at what became Camp Leakey after a full day's boat journey up the Sekonyer River. They were accompanied by three Indonesian government officials and a local cook.
"The 1970s were spent in the forest with wild orangutans. Every day I would get up early and go into the forest, either by myself or…..
About three weeks after arrival in Borneo, Biruté met the wild born orangutan named Akmad, who had just been captured by illegal loggers in the local area. Biruté's former husband Rod Brindamour and local Forestry officials confiscated Akmad and brought her to Camp Leakey for rehabilitation and safe release.
"Akmad impacted me not only because she was the first orangutan female whom we rescued but also because of her very genteel and serene nature. She was a wild orangutan who had not been kept in captivity for very long. She was also a local girl in the sense that she was captured by illegal loggers within the Sekonyer River area. " READ MORE
After almost two months of working in the Camp Leakey study area, Biruté successfully followed a wild orangutan, Beth, and her infant Bert for five days straight. This was the first time that Biruté was able to arrive at the night nest of a wild orangutan whom she had located the previous day before the orangutan left the nest the following morning. This was a first major success in her wild orangutan research because it indicated that orangutans could be observed for more than just one day at a time.
"The early encounters with wild orangutans seemed surreal. I found it hard to believe that I was actually in the Borneo forest observing wild orangutans. When following wild orangutans by myself it was possible to have interactions that could not be duplicated in the presence of other people.…..
"The humidity was unbearable. The heat was unbearable. The sweat just poured and the fat seemingly melted out of my pores. I became very thin. I was hungry most of the time but I was so afraid of …..
"I was born to study orangutans because they, like me, are of the great forest."
Biruté Galdikas, “Orangutans: Indonesia’s People of the Forest,” National Geographic - This iconic image was featured on the cover of a National Geographic issue containing a story written by Biruté with Camp Leakey photos and the surrounding forest taken by Rod Brindamour. The 1975 cover, which was actually taken in 1973, included Akmad standing in front of Biruté as they walked on a trail to the forest while Biruté held a smaller orangutan. By the mid-70s Biruté had taken care of and rehabilitated dozens of wild born ex-captive orangutans, many of whom “released” themselves and went back to the forest on their own. Others would sometimes go back to the forest for a year or two and then abruptly appear back in camp, sometimes to stay for a long period of time. Other ex-captives came just for a short visit. Akmad was one of the individuals who returned. She was gone several times, once for over a year, before she returned to stay in the vicinity of Camp Leakey. The infant and small juvenile orangutan orphans stayed with Rod and Biruté in their bark-walled hut and went out each day with Biruté when she woke up, had breakfast, and left the hut. She had to stay in the adjacent forest and woodlands because as soon as she went back to the hut, all the orangutans would follow her and wreck the hut. There were no cages or sleeping enclosures. Some of the orangutan orphans would stay the night in nests they had made in nearby trees. Camp Leakey was an oasis of peace and calm for the wild born ex-captive orangutans because human activity had not yet penetrated very much in the area.
Biruté and Rod's son Binti Brindamour was born. Binti spent the first years of his life at Camp Leakey with his parents and the orangutans.
Orangutan Princess arrived in Camp Leakey. She was about a year old at arrival and made friends with the other infant orangutans at Camp as well as Binti. Biruté worked with then-graduate student Gary Shapiro who was teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to wild born ex-captive orangutans from 1978-1980. Princess became famous for her intelligence and ASL communication skills.
Dr. Galdikas was awarded a Doctorate of Anthropology from UCLA. Her PhD Thesis Dissertation titled ORANGUTAN ADAPTATION AT TANJUNG PUTING RESERVE, CENTRAL BORNEO was published.
"At the end of the 1970s, after seven and a half years, my former husband Rod Brindamour left Borneo because he wanted to continue his education in North America. Overall the memories of my experience of the 1970s were of a peaceful, even magical world. It was still an undisturbed, primeval world that resembled a Garden of Eden. The local people practiced some illegal logging but ...
Dr. Biruté published her first primatological research article in the journal Science, one of the most well-respected peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world to this day. The article, titled “Orangutan Death and Scavenging by Pigs,” described evidence of Bornean bearded pigs scavenging on orangutan carcasses and explored the implications of these findings on what we know about ape fossil records.
National Geographic Magazine published Dr. Biruté’s second cover story, “Living with the Great Orange Apes,” in June 1980. The cover featured the iconic photo of her son Binti and orphaned orangutan Princess, making Biruté and Binti the only mother and son pair ever individually featured on separate covers of National Geographic Magazine. Biruté’s article highlighted scientific findings from over 12,000 hours of orangutan observations that had taken place over eight years:
Newly minted PhD Dr. Biruté began work as a Visiting Professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada and briefly as an Adjunct Professor at University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the same time. After Biruté’s first American graduate student Gary Shapiro left, Biruté hosted another American student, Ruth Hamilton, at Camp Leakey in 1981. The pair later published a paper about the nutritional content of foods preferred by wild orangutans. Throughout the 1980s, Biruté began hosting students from Simon Fraser University and other North American universities at Camp Leakey as well as continued supervising Indonesian university students. In 1989, Dr. Biruté became the first woman hired as a Full Professor from the start (without going through the tenure-track progression) in the history of Simon Fraser University. She continues teaching about primate behavior and ecology at SFU to this day.
After Rod Brindamour left Borneo, he and Dr. Biruté divorced. Biruté married Pak Bohap, a local indigenous Dayak “elder” (a status, not an age) who had worked as a research assistant at Camp Leakey in the 1970s. Pak Bohap remains an integral part of OFI’s field operations to this day. Biruté and Pak Bohap have a son and a daughter together, both born in the 1980s. All Biruté’s children spent their early years among the orangutans. Biruté and Pak Bohap have now been married over 40 years.
Dr. Galdikas, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Dr. Dian Fossey, known as the “Trimates,” embarked on joint lectures across North America in collaboration with The Leakey Foundation, the American Museum of Natural History, as well as Sweet Briar College in Virginia, California Institute of Technology, and other institutions. This tour brought attention to the academic achievements of the Trimates, their important conservation work, and the threats faced by their respective study species.
Thanks partially to Dr. Biruté’s persistent and consistent campaigning with local and national officials, the Indonesian government changed the designation of Tanjung Puting from a Wildlife Reserve to a National Park in 1982. This upgrade went into effect in 1983. National Park status afforded the forest environment better protection from logging, mining, and other intrusive activities as well as afforded increased prestige. Today Tanjung Puting National Park may be home to the largest wild orangutan population in the world and serves as a refuge for many other native and endemic Bornean species, such as the iconic proboscis monkey, clouded leopard, and Malayan sun bear. Tanjung Puting National Park has become a popular ecotourist destination, providing an important source of income to local people who serve as guides, boat owners and staff, cooks, taxi drivers, and hotel owners and service providers for the tourist industry. Tanjung Puting is the biggest tourist attraction for foreign visitors in Central Borneo, which is the Indonesian province of Kalimantan Tengah.
During the 1980s, Indonesian students from Universitas Nasional (UNAS) in Jakarta continued to collect data in the Camp Leakey study area under Dr. Biruté’s supervision for their Sarjana degree theses in the Faculty of Biology. Some of the students came back for a second time, including Pak Edy Hendras who had first worked at Camp Leakey in 1983 through 1984. Like some other UNAS students, Pak Edy returned as a staff member in 1987, when he spearheaded OFI’s nascent conservation program in local schools and villages. Dr. Biruté had done this earlier but was not able to devote full-time to the local education mission. Pak Edy was tireless. He hosted regular meetings and organized nature outings for students from local schools. He also edited OFI’s first Indonesian newsletter. He is an example of the former UNAS students who continue to work in conservation to this day. He is the editor of the OFI’s current Indonesian newsletter, Pesan Dari Alam (Message From Nature), which continues to educate local students and villagers about conservation to this day.
In 1983 Dr. Biruté received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in recognition of her exceptional scientific achievements. This fellowship helped support research and conservation activities at Camp Leakey for the entire year of 1983.
The first of many Earthwatch expeditions took place at Camp Leakey in 1984. This program brought enthusiastic volunteers from around the globe to join Dr. Biruté and her staff in their work. The volunteers followed wild orangutans and collected behavioral data in the forest along with the staff. The partnership between local staff with their forest knowledge and expertise, on one hand, and educated Western volunteers with their book-learning on the other hand, proved an excellent one. They learned from each other. The Earthwatchers were surprisingly skilled at observing wild orangutans, took excellent notes, and most were dedicated to their research mission as volunteers. Every evening after dinner Biruté would have a discussion with the Earthwatch volunteers and local staff about their day’s findings. Biruté went out almost every day into the field to work with the volunteers and staff to search for wild orangutans and follow wild orangutans after they were encountered. During the ten years that Earthwatch expeditions came to Camp Leakey, 74 teams consisting of over 820 people participated. Many former Earthwatch volunteers became strong advocates for orangutans and tropical forest conservation. A few even joined OFI’s Board of Directors once OFI was established in 1986.
In the mid 1970s, two retired Indonesian Army Generals, one of whom had been the very popular Chief of Police for all of Indonesia, gave me their four orangutans... READ MORE
Formation of Orangutan Foundation International. The roots of OFI lie in the original Orangutan Research and Conservation Project estabished by Biruté and Rod. With a network of local staff and volunteers, Biruté began working to expand the projects of the original ORCP to create programs aimed specifically at conservation, rehabilitation, research, and education. A lawyer from the US Justice Department in Washington, D.C., John Beal, visited Camp Leakey in late 1979. After his return to the United States, he helped Biruté and a few colleagues establish the Orangutan Foundation in Los Angeles, California. The name was later changed to Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). After Beal took courses in foundation and non-profit law, Biruté and Beal registered OFI as a 501(c)3 public foundation in 1986. OFI is dedicated to research, education, conservation, and forest protection in order to ensure the survival of biologically viable orangutan populations in the wild and the welfare of all orangutans, including wildborn ex-captives, wherever they are found.
Following her doctoral dissertation and prestigious publication in Science in 1978, Dr. Biruté continued to make significant contributions to the scientific community throughout the 1980s. She authored and co-authored approximately two dozen publications mainly consisting of her breakthrough findings in the behavior and ecology of orangutans in the Camp Leakey study area, but also included book reviews and theoretical papers. These seminal works on tool use, foraging, sociality, birthing, and more were published as chapters in books and as papers in journals such as Journal of Human Evolution, Primates, Current Anthropology, Folia Primatologica, American Journal of Primatology, and Journal of Mammalogy. Biruté’s publications from the 1980s were instrumental in influencing primatological theory and later studies by orangutan (and other primate) researchers.
Tanjung Harapan, which is in Tanjung Puting National Park, was the original site of Sekonyer Village. After years of prodding by Dr. Biruté and Rod Brindamour, the Forestry Department in Pangkalan Bun eventually persuaded the villagers to move from what was then the Reserve to the other side of the river. The village is still located across the river from what became Tanjung Puting National Park. OFI established a release site at Tanjung Harapan for rehabilitated ex-captive orangutans in 1989. This camp was set up at the request of the Park Authority. OFI employees still live in the area around Tanjung Harapan to protect the orangutans and the forest. Tanjung Harapan and the other approximately dozen release sites have been central to Biruté’s and OFI’s success in releasing almost 900 wild born ex-captive orangutans back into the wild.
In the 1970s the situation facing orangutans and the existence of rainforest seemed somewhat bleak. Little did I know! The situation in the 70s was actually the calm before the storm. Suddenly, ...READ MORE