PROFESSOR, PIONEER, PROTECTOR.

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.

50 Years in the Field

1970s

1970s

ARRIVAL IN EDEN

Biruté and her former husband Rod Brindamour in the mid-70s

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.

November 1971

EARLY DAYS IN THE FOREST

 

"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…..

 

THE FIRST LADY: AKMAD

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.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AKMAD

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.
--Biruté Mary Galdikas
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BETH

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.

Christmas Day (Dec 25th) 1971

EARLY ENCOUNTERS WITH WILD ORANGUTANS

Wild Male Orangutan Throatpouch

Wild Male Orangutan Throatpouch

"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....

HUNGER IN THE FOREST

"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 …..

FIRST INDONESIAN STUDENTS

Biruté welcomed her first Indonesian students from the Faculty of Biology at Universitas Nasional, Jakarta in 1974. The students began data collection under Biruté’s supervision for their “Sarjana” theses which are the equivalent of an honors undergraduate degree. Later, Forestry Department students from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta joined the Camp Leakey research team for six months at a time. Over the years Biruté supervised well over one hundred Indonesian students, a number of whom went on to get their PhDs in North America, Australia or Europe as well as Indonesia. Some of her students became influential conservationists and scholars as well as government officials.

Biruté’s former students (from right clockwise: Barita Oloan Manullang, Endang Sukara, Jatna Supriatna [face hidden], and Jito Sugarjito) carrying subadult male orangutan “Gundul” from Indonesian Air Force plane. The plane brought Biruté, Rod, Biruté’s students, and four ex-pet orangutans from Jakarta (Java) to PangkalanBun (Borneo). Gundul was a former pet of an Indonesian Army General living in Java who gave Gundul to Biruté for rehabilitation and release. Another General who was also a former beloved Police Chief of Indonesia turned over his three pet Bornean orangutans to Biruté at the same time. The two Generals’ voluntary hand-over of the four adolescent/subadult orangutans to Biruté and the orangutans’ flight back to Borneo on an Air Force plane made headline news in Indonesia. It also cemented Biruté’s role as an active conservationist in the country. Of the four ex-captive orangutans who were brought to Camp Leakey, three went back to the wild but one chose to stay in the general vicinity of the forest near Camp Leakey until she died many years later. She was the mother of Camp Leakey icon “Siswi” who is now in her forties and occasionally graces Camp Leakey with her presence.

1974

BORN TO STUDY ORANGUTANS

Biruté holding orphaned and rescued infant orangutan Sugito in her lap as she sits in the swamp collecting data on wild orangutans in the Camp Leakey study area.

Biruté holding orphaned and rescued infant orangutan Sugito in her lap as she sits in the swamp collecting data on wild orangutans in the Camp Leakey study area

I was born to study orangutans because they, like me, are of the great forest.
- Biruté Mary Galdikas

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

National Geographic Cover 1975

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.

October 1975

BINTI

Biruté and her son Binti when he was eleven days old

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.

PRINCESS

Binti at age one with Princess at Camp Leakey

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.

1977-78

A CULMINATION OF EFFORT

Biruté with her doctoral committee members Bernard Campbell and Rainer Berger, after turning in her PhD thesis, 1978

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.

1978

LIVING IN EDEN

"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 ...

SCIENTIFIC PRESTIGE

Cover of 1978 Science edition that featured an article by Dr. Biruté.

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.

1978

1980s

1980s

LIVING WITH THE GREAT ORANGE APES

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:

 We have now cataloged more than 300 different orangutan food types, fleshed out orangutan social structure, documented the mating system, mapped foraging strategies and patterns of ranging, and charted orangutan development in the wild.
Biruté Mary Galdikas, “Living with the Great Orange Apes,” National Geographic, June 1980
1980

PROFESSOR BIRUTÉ

Dr. Biruté gives a lecture to students at Simon Fraser University while a camera crew records. Photo by Simon Fraser University (#MPR_91-03-24-001).

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.

1981

A GROWING FAMILY

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’ two older children by her side while she hold the youngest in her lap.

Pak Bohap and his son, Dr. Biruté’s middle child.

TRIMATES ON TOUR

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.

From left to right: Joan Travis (a founding member of the The Leakey Foundation), Biruté Mary Galdikas, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey.

1981-1982

TANJUNG PUTING GAINS PROTECTION

Early map of Tanjung Puting National Park, including the Camp Leakey study area.

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.

1982

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: EDY HENDRAS

Pak Edy Hendras with orangutan Siswoyo at Camp Leakey in 1983.

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.

GUGGENHEIM FELLOW

Dr. Biruté poses for a photograph in her office at Simon Fraser University. Photo by Simon Fraser University (UNS_89-01-44_003).

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.

1983

EARTHWATCH

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.

Volunteer group from an August 1988 Earthwatch expedition, along with Pak Bohap and daughter, at Camp Leakey. Ralph Arbus, who became a long-term OFI volunteer until his death decades later, sits at the extreme left in the second row. Photo taken by Dr. Biruté.

Excerpt from a 1985 checklist Biruté sent to Earthwatch volunteers prior to their departure for Borneo.

1984

FIRST MOTHER: SISWOYO

Dr. Biruté sitting by the side of her house arm-in-arm with adult female Siswoyo. Infant Siswi is partially visible clinging to Siswoyo’s left side.

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...

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ORANGUTAN FOUNDATION INTERNATIONAL IS BORN

Dr. Biruté, John Beal, and orangutan Siswi at Camp Leakey in 2014.

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.

1986

SEMINAL STUDIES

Clippings from three of Dr. Biruté’s many 1980s publications

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

Orangutan exiting transport cage after being translocated to the Tanjung Harapan area.

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.

1989

THREATS TO THE PARK ESCALATE

Illegal loggers from the local area dragging out logs from the middle of the National Park.

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, ...

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1990s

1990s

BANGKOK SIX


One of the crates in which the Bangkok Six were found at the Bangkok Airport in 1990.

Hundreds of orangutans were smuggled to fuel the exotic pet trade from the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra to areas far beyond orangutan native range in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, the Royal Thai Forestry seized six infant orangutans at the Bangkok Airport who were in the process of being smuggled to ...

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Humanitarian Award from PETA

On September 15, 1990, Biruté was one of 15 recipients of a Humanitarian Award from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She was the only scientist to be honored with the award that year. She was recognized for her nearly two decades of dedication to orangutan research and conservation in Indonesia, including her help in rescuing the Bangkok Six earlier in 1990. She accepted the award from Borneo through a recording that was played at the black-tie gala that other OFI board members attended in her stead.

Orangutan Foundation Taiwan


Captive infant orangutan at a Taiwanese restaurant

Orphaned infant orangutan for sale at a pet shop in Taiwan

Newspaper headline from 1991

Due largely to the portrayal of orangutans as delightful pets on Taiwanese television, a significant portion of the orangutans smuggled out of Borneo and Sumatra in the 1990s wound up in Taiwan. While Indonesia and Malaysia (the nations governing Sumatra and Borneo) had laws and regulations prohibiting the sale and private ownership of orangutans, Taiwan did not. Taiwanese entrepreneurs capitalized on the poor enforcement capabilities of authorities in some Indonesian and Malaysian port cities to sneak hundreds of orangutans to Taiwan every year.


Orphaned juvenile orangutans being held captive for entertainment at a Taiwanese restaurant.

Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) became concerned with this situation. With Marcus Phipps coordinating activities in Taiwan, OFI began the process of establishing a sister organization, Orangutan Foundation Taiwan. OFTaiwan was officially established in 1991 with Taiwanese academics, businesspeople, and news media personalities on the board of directors and Dr. Biruté as the honorary chairperson. OFTaiwan aggressively pursued outreach activities to educate Taiwanese people and tourists to Taiwan about the harms of the exotic pet trade and ownership of orangutans, including the risk of disease transmission, particularly from humans to orangutans. Dr. Biruté traveled to Taiwan on several occasions to participate in media awareness events.


Taiwanese students in front of OFTaiwan educational display.

When Taiwan passed a law in 1991 banning the import of all primates, including orangutans, OFI and OFTaiwan were credited with being instrumental in pushing the law through. Our influence pushed two popular Taiwanese television shows to stop producing new episodes or airing old episodes featuring orangutan “stars.” However, there was no facility in Taiwan able to accept the many hundreds of orangutans living in private ownership. Thus, OFTaiwan began a campaign to build a sanctuary facility and to repatriate as many orangutans back to their native homeland as possible. It also held regular clinics in which individuals who owned orangutans could bring the orangutans in to be tested for TB, Hepatitis B, and other diseases, as well as get guidance on orangutan health, nutrition, and care.


OFTaiwan personnel administering medical care to a young captive orangutan brought in for a free clinic

Taiwan Ten


Cartoon depiction of the Taiwan Ten flying from Taiwan to Indonesia


Nine young wild born captive orangutans whom Taiwanese officials had confiscated and one young orangutan whom Orangutan Foundation Taiwan (OFT) acquired for repatriation became known as the “Taiwan Ten” in the early 1990s....

 

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An Indomitable Spirit

While Dr. Biruté does not speak of this publicly, she endured significant personal threats and aggression due to her environmental activism in the 1990s. In response to the threats stacked against her, the Indonesian government assigned two police officers to remain with her 24/7 for three years straight. During this time, Dr. Biruté had a police officer with her even as she trudged through deep peat forest swamps following wild orangutans and while she stayed in Camp Leakey and other remote forest camps.

It was about ten years altogether that Dr. Biruté was persecuted both in person and in the media. This is while the illegal logging, carried out by the equivalent of local robber barons, was escalating. Some of these robber barons had connections to powerful people in the government. She remembers often wondering, “Will this ever end?” She later said, “The only way I could survive was to take things one day at a time. I also remember at the time local people saying, ‘You must be doing something right to make certain people dislike you so much.’” Somebody clearly wanted her out so they could log the mainly virgin forests of Tanjung Puting. Apparently, some of these people were convinced that Dr. Galdikas was the main obstacle preventing them from logging Tanjung Puting National Park.

Great Apes International Conference

At the request of the Indonesian government, OFI organized an international conference focused on research and conservation of all the great apes, both African and Asian. In 1991 Indonesia started a campaign called “Visit Indonesia Year,” the first in the “Visit Indonesia Decade,” to promote Indonesia to the world tourism industry. The Great Apes International Conference was opened by then-President of Indonesia, President Soeharto, at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas presented President Soeharto with an award and many other prominent scientists and conservationists attended. At the last minute, Dr. Galdikas was asked to give the equivalent of a keynote address. In total, the conference was attended by 93 individuals from 13 countries around the globe. Among the scientific dignitaries present at the conference, along with Jane Goodall, were Geza Teleki, Richard Wrangham, Sandy Harcourt, Kelly Stewart, Toshisada Nishida, and many others. After spending the first two days in Jakarta the conference moved to Pangkalan Bun in Central Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan Tengah) in the vicinity of OFI’s field operations. Conference attendees had the opportunity to visit Camp Leakey and observe orangutans firsthand. The conference participants stayed at the Rimba Lodge, which had been expanded in the previous two months to welcome the 93 scientists plus organizers and government officials. Pak Aju, who was the co-owner of the Rimba Lodge along with his wife Ibu Aju, was seen walking around every day for weeks managing construction from dawn to dusk with a harried look on his face. He didn’t want to be embarrassed if the lodge facilities were not ready for the conference participants. The visit from such a large number of foreign guests was a big deal in the local area. This conference was important not only to share information on great apes within the scientific community, but also to illustrate to the people of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) that the economic value of preserving orangutans and tropical rainforest for tourism could be significant. Kelly Stewart, Jane Goodall, Biruté Mary Galdikas, then-Indonesian President Soeharto, Forestry Minister (Hasjrul Harahap), Minister of Defense and National Security (Soesilo Soedarman), and the Minister of the Environment (Emil Salim) standing in the front row at the opening ceremonies of the Great Apes International Conference Dr. Jane Goodall, then-Indonesian President Soeharto, and Dr. Galdikas at the opening ceremonies of the Great Apes International Conference Conference participants in front of sign welcoming them to Tanjung PutingDecember 1991

Global Recognition

In 1993 Dr. Galdikas received a Global 500 Environmental Achievement Award from the United Nations. She met and was congratulated by then United States Vice President Al Gore. After hearing firsthand about Dr. Galdikas’ experiences working to protect orangutans, Vice President Gore sent letters to Indonesian government officials stressing the importance of orangutan conservation to the global community. “Recently I met Dr. Galdikas and learned about her study of orangutans and their native rainforest habitat. Her work over the past 22 years is evidence of her dedication and determination, and I would like to join with American and international organizations that have recognized Dr. Galdikas for her important work on conservation issues.” - Al Gore, November 23, 1993 1993

Pondok Tanggui

OFI and Indonesia’s Forest Protection and Nature Conservation agency (PHPA) set up Pondok Tanggui as a new orangutan release site halfway between Camp Leakey and Tanjung Harapan in Tanjung Puting National Park. Pondok Tanggui offered a transition site for orangutan youngsters who had mastered the skills to sleep in the forest overnight. OFI tried to keep human interaction at Pondok Tanggui to a minimum overall so that the orangutans who had been moved there from Tanjung Harapan would soon embrace a wild lifestyle. Since all the orangutans whom OFI moved to Pondok Tanggui were juveniles and adolescents, this was much easier than at other release sites where infants were nurtured.


Sign along the river at the entrance to Pondok Tanggui: “Tanjung Puting National Park, Orangutan Rehabilitation Location, Pondok Tanggui”

1994

EMPLOYEE SPOTLIGHT: IBU RENIE

Prepandemic Ibu Renie holds a rescued infant orangutan at the Care Center in Central Kalimantan

Prepandemic Ibu Renie holds a rescued infant orangutan at the Care Center in Central Kalimantan.

Jakarta, the current capital of Indonesia. A city famed for its hustle and bustle, roads jam packed with motorbikes and cars each vying for space, sidewalks overflowing with street vendors and people. It’s easy to be overwhelmed here. In amongst this sits an unassuming side street where one will find an equally unassuming house. Finding it can require a master’s degree as these back streets twist and turn ensuring those unfamiliar with the area will have a hard time finding any address. The only clues as to the house occupants are a couple of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) logos which cling snugly to a lower front window. This is the OFI Jakarta office. It is a conduit for all those wishing to get involved and also acts a stop off for those on their way to Borneo. Here you will find Ibu Renie hard at work at her computer. Ibu Renie Djojoasmoro is a resident of Jakarta and works out of the office but she is not deskbound by any means.

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Reflections of Eden

Dr. Galdikas’ autobiography, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo, was published in 1995. This critically acclaimed book was printed in over ten different countries, translated into many different languages, and sold thousands of copies worldwide. It was even featured in a bookstore in Zanzibar! Reflections of Eden gives readers accessible and emotional insights into orangutan biology, behavior, and conservation. It paints a portrait of the destruction of orangutan habitat, the tropical rainforest, and the challenges Dr. Galdikas overcame in her first two decades working to understand orangutans and save them from extinction.

Hardcover of Reflections of Eden as published in the United States

1995

25 Years in the Field

In 1996 Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) hosted a gala celebrating Dr. Galdikas’ 25 years of orangutan research and conservation work in the field. Kevin Nealon from Saturday Night Live was Master of Ceremonies for the event. Other prominent guests attended, including Betty White, Gordon Getty, and many others. Pierce Brosnan cancelled at the last minute because he had to fly to Europe to attend a funeral for someone associated with the James Bond franchise. Pierce was represented by his wife, environmental journalist Keely Shae Smith. The gala was a big success, raising a significant amount of money for orangutan research and conservation.

1996

Kusasi: Survivor

Kusasi was an extraordinary orangutan. Unlike most orangutans living in the wild, he was the star of his own film called “Kusasi: From Orphan to King,” which initially aired on BBC and PBS in 2005, subsequently shown worldwide. Kusasi also became famous as the dominant Camp Leakey adult male orangutan. Kusasi first came to Camp Leakey in August 1978. He was an infant brought in by Indonesian Forestry officers. He was scrawny and recently captured. No doubt, his mother had been killed in order to obtain him. Sometimes it is difficult to judge the age of young orangutans. Wild infants are often much smaller than well-fed “pet” orangutans who are sometimes pampered when they are babies. We initially estimated that Kusasi was eighteen months old when he first arrived. But now in retrospect, he was probably somewhat older when he first came. He was probably at least three years of age. Orangutan infants stay small for several years and do not have a growth spurt until their fourth of fifth year of age.     Read More

Government Advisor

Between 1996-1998, Dr. Galdikas served as a Senior Advisor to Indonesia’s Minister of Forestry. While serving in this role, she convinced the Minister to establish the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve in Central Borneo. This reserve was created from two expired logging concessions that the government had planned to prioritize for palm oil concessions before its declaration as a protected reserve. Today Lamandau is over 188,000 acres in size and holds its own large population of wild orangutans. The establishment of Lamandau as a protected area was very helpful in restoring the forest to its original state after years of selective logging.


Lamandau Wildlife Reserve and Tanjung Puting National Park boundaries in 1998 (the boundaries of both protected areas have been changed since that time)

1996 – 1998

“Hero for the Environment”

Dr. Galdikas was the first person born outside of Indonesia to win the nation’s Kalpataru Award, acknowledging her as a “Hero for the Environment.” This award was presented to her directly by Indonesian President Soeharto.

Indonesian President Soeharto shaking Dr. Galdikas’ hand at the 1991 Great Apes Conference, just as he shook it upon presenting her with the Kalpataru Award in 1997.

1997

Julia in Borneo

Julia Roberts, the world-renowned charismatic actor who starred in hits like “Pretty Women” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” joined Dr. Galdikas and the orangutans in Borneo in 1997 to film a documentary. The documentary focused on Julia’s journey to witness and understand orangutans and their plight. Julia accompanied the OFI team on treks through deep swamps, bonded with an infant orangutan named Hughie undergoing rehabilitation, and was an object of intense interest for Kusasi, the massive dominant male orangutan around Camp Leakey at the time. The documentary aired as an episode of the “In the Wild” television series on PBS in 1998. Julia left Borneo on the last plane leaving Pangkalan Bun airport for three months because of the smoke from the massive fires from Borneo and Sumatra that were already shrouding the skies in Southeast Asia. After her visit to Borneo, she agreed to serve on OFI’s Honorary Board of Directors.


The Rise of Palm Oil and Massive Fires in Borneo

The wildfires of 1997 and 1998 devastated Indonesia, orangutans, and much of Southeast Asia. As forests in Borneo, especially Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), were being extensively logged and peatlands drained to be converted to industrial scale palm oil plantations, pulp and paper plantations, and rice farms, much of the previously fire-resistant rainforests of Borneo became a tinderbox poised for catastrophe. The El Niño weather phenomenon of 1997 brought heavy rains and flooding to parts of North America, but it brought a long drought to parts of Southeast Asia, including Borneo. As fires were intentionally set to clear forests for palm oil, they quickly became fast-spreading wildfires exacerbated by the severe drought and the changed nature of the land. Satellite data indicated that over 80% of the fires had originated in timber estates and palm oil plantations.

By some estimates, almost 20 million acres of land burned down as a result of these devastating wildfires, making it one of the largest forest fires recorded at the time. Hundreds of people died as a direct result of the fires and millions more across Southeast Asia suffered long-term effects from the air pollution. Dr. Galdikas wrote shortly after these fires, “During some mornings the smoke haze was so thick that one could barely see one’s hand stretched out at arm’s length in front of one’s face!” Dr. Galdikas still suffers respiratory issues as a result of these fires (and many others that have since hit Borneo).

 


Air pollution in October 1997, caused by Indonesian forest fires. Source: Wikipedia

There is no telling how many orangutans died during the 1997/1998 forest fires, but the damage done to their rainforest home was catastrophic. Dr. Galdikas said at the time that “our facilities were overwhelmed with newly captured and newly confiscated infants” as a result of the massive fires. She also wrote, “Orangutans are arboreal; under normal conditions, orangutans essentially spend their entire lifetimes in the canopy of the tropical rainforest. Deprived of their forest cover, orangutans are increasingly bumping into ever-expanding human populations. Deprived of their food sources, orangutans are beginning to raid people’s gardens and palm oil plantations. Thus, orangutans become the victims of people’s ignorance and anger. The resulting slaughter of adult orangutans has left hundreds, if not thousands of infants in captivity.” Dr. Galdikas believes that wild orangutan populations have still not recovered from the massive fires of that period. “We don’t know how many orangutans actually died directly from the fires, from smoke inhalation, or being burned alive.”

The rains began in November of 1997, but it wasn’t until the heavy seasonal rains in the spring of 1998 that finally quelled the massive fires throughout Borneo. The damage had been done. Not only were millions of trees destroyed, but also hundreds of thousands of wild animals were killed, leaving Borneo’s fauna in many areas depauperate. The economic crisis that resulted from the fires (costing many billions of dollars across Southeast Asia) put immense pressure on average people in Indonesia, highlighting the interconnectivity between economic and environmental strife.

 

Massive Forest Fires in Borneo Affect Hollywood Plans

Julia Roberts, who had joined Dr. Galdikas and OFI staff in Borneo in 1997 to film for a television documentary, flew out in haste because of the ever-expanding fires and resultant haze. She barely made it on the last flight to leave Pangkalan Bun Airport. This last flight consisted of a small local cargo plane which contrasted with the privately-owned Gulfstream jet that initially brought Julia to Borneo from Bali. For three months after Julia left, no flights came in or out of Pangkalan Bun Airport. It was simply too dangerous given the extremely poor visibility due to smoke from the massive forest fires that burned for many months across Borneo.

At about the same time, recent Oscar award winner Marisa Tomei was scheduled to catch a flight to start production on “Reflections of Eden” as a feature film in Indonesia. As she was about to get into the limousine that was to take her to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), the producer called to inform her that filming had been cancelled due to the ongoing fires in Borneo. Funding for this film had been secured some time previous. Pre-production, including the building of sets, hiring of actors, setting up logistic networks, and hiring drivers, vehicles, and boats in Borneo had already been completed. Marisa Tomei, who was going to play Dr. Galdikas in the film, had been very enthusiastic. She met Filomena Galdikas, Dr. Galdikas’ mother, in person at the OFI office in Los Angeles and told her, “I am going to do your daughter proud.” A few years later, the producer died of cancer while trying to resuscitate the film. Marisa Tomei went on to other projects. Ultimately, because of the 1997/1998 fires, this feature film that would have brought immense recognition to the plight of orangutans was never made.

Opening of the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine

After many years of visualizing, planning, and fundraising, in 1998 Dr. Galdikas and OFI opened the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Central Indonesian Borneo in order to better provide life-saving treatment to sick or injured orangutans, both wild and ex-captive, and to provide a center for the care and rehabilitation of young ex-captive orangutan orphans torn from their often-dead mothers.

The OCCQ was designed with the intention of being able to house and rehabilitate many orangutan youngsters and a handful of older, larger orangutans in need of care. The capacity at which the OCCQ was built was consistent with the demands put on Dr. Galdikas and OFI up to that point in time. But during the rampant forest fires of 1997, an unprecedented 80 orphaned orangutan infants were handed over to OFI for rehabilitation during the latter part of that year. Before the OCCQ was even completed, it had exceeded its capacity and needed to be enlarged. The mounting threats against orangutans have necessitated near-constant expansions and improvements to the OCCQ ever since its establishment.

But all the effort has not been in vain. In cooperation with the Forestry Department, several hundred wild orangutans have been rescued from human-wildlife conflict situations, received sometimes life-saving care from OCCQ veterinarians, and been translocated to safe forests in the vicinity of Tanjung Puting National Park. In addition, Dr. Galdikas and OCCQ staff have helped rescue, rehabilitate, and release almost 1,000 ex-captive orangutans back to the wild between 1971-2022.


 
View of the veterinary center and office building of the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ), current times

1998

Second Great Apes Conference

Dr. Galdikas helped organize the 1998 “Great Apes of the World” conference in Kucing, Sarawak, Malaysia. This conference made a splash in Sarawak, bringing many researchers to the region and resulting in the publication of All Apes Great and Small, Volume One: African Apes. While attending this conference in Sarawak, Dr. Galdikas encouraged the Chief Minister of Sarawak to designate two forested areas in the region as national parks protected for orangutan and biodiversity conservation. This led to the eventual formation of Ulu Sebuyau National Park and Sedilu National Park in Sarawak. Towards the end of the conference, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Dr. Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, to the pleased surprise and shock of everyone at the conference, including his own cabinet ministers, had spontaneously announced the establishment of Ulu Sebuyau as a protected area for orangutan conservation.


Dr. Galdikas presenting the Chief Minister of Sarawak with the OFI Friendship Award

Illegal Logging Threatens to Destroy Indonesia’s Forests, Including National Parks

Illegal loggers in the center of Tanjung Puting and the wood they cut, shaped, and took out of the Park

The fall of Indonesian President Soeharto’s regime in May 1998 was followed by a period of political and economic instability. As Dr. Galdikas stated at the time, “After [Soeharto’s] government was toppled, there was a power vacuum at the center, and many people realized very quickly that they could now do whatever they wanted.” Illegal loggers started entering Tanjung Puting National Park and other protected forests in droves. Quickly, illegal logging outpaced legal logging. In contrast to the decades before, this new illegal logging was commercial in scale, organized and orchestrated by elite people who had no fear because of their strong government connections and their ability to pay people off....

 

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Orangutan Odyssey

Dr. Biruté published coffee table book Orangutan Odyssey with Nancy Briggs in 1999. Full of captivating imagery from renowned nature photographer Karl Amman, Orangutan Odyssey brought orangutans directly into people’s living rooms. For a coffee table book, Orangutan Odyssey sold well and soon went out of print.
Hardcover of Orangutan Odyssey

1999

Other Awards in the 1990s

“This year’s award recognizes two decades of remarkable dedication, personal sacrifice, and true bravery. Against incredible odds, the indomitable spirit of Biruté Galdikas has added years of hope to the survival of one of humankind’s closest primate relatives, the orangutan, and its threatened rainforest habitat.”

  • Excerpt from statement made by Anthony D. Ruckel, then-President of The Sierra Club upon presenting Dr. Biruté with the Chico Mendes Award at the Senate Building in Washington, D.C. (January 26, 1993)

 

Dr. Biruté received many honors and awards in recognition of her contributions to orangutan conservation and environmental protection in the 1990s. Some notable awards include:

  • Humanitarian Award from PETA (1990)
  • Hero for the Earth Award, Eddie Bauer (1991)
  • Global 500 Roll of Honour, United Nations Environment Programme (1993)
  • Chico Mendes Award, The Sierra Club (1993)
  • Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Medal, Canada (1994)
  • Honorary Doctorate, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (1995)
  • Officer, Order of Canada (1995)
  • Kalpataru Award, “Hero for the Environment,” from the Indonesian government (1997)
  • Tyler Prize for World Environmental Science Achievement and Leadership (1997)

Scientific Publications in the 1990s

Some of Dr. Biruté’s notable scientific publications of the 1990s include:

  • “Great Ape and Human Birth Intervals,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1990)
  • “Sociobiology in Primatology,” chapter in The Sociobiological Imagination (1991)
  • “On the Comparison of Primate Social Systems,” Current Anthropology (1991)
  • “Imitation in Free-ranging Rehabilitant Orangutans” with Anne E. Russon, Journal of Comparative Psychology (1993)
  • “A Preliminary Study of Food Selection by the Orangutan in Relation to Plant Quality” with Ruth Hamilton, Primates (1994)
  • “Constraints on Great Apes’ Imitation: Model and Action Selectivity in Rehabilitant Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) Imitation” with Anne E. Russon, Journal of Comparative Psychology (1995)
  • “Early Sign Performance in a Free-ranging, Adult Orangutan” with Gary Shapiro, chapter in The Mentalities of Gorillas and Orangutans (1999)

Coming Soon 2000 - 2022

Check back as we continue
to reveal memorable moments from each of the five decades! #50yearsinthefield

EARLY DAYS IN THE FOREST
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 with my former husband, Rod Brindamour. We would search for wild orangutans. Sometimes it took weeks to actually find an orangutan. Often I became anxious thinking that we would never see another wild orangutan ever again. It’s really difficult to describe what it was like back then. Days were spent in the swamps, up to our armpits in black acidic water, searching for wild orangutans and following them wherever we found them. Insect bites that led to inflamed sores, malaria, and mysterious fevers were very common occurrences. Once my hand was so swollen from insect bites that I couldn’t move my fingers. Another time a centipede bit me on the face and my face swelled up so much that I looked like an old potato. Encounters with snakes in our bark-walled, thatch-roofed hut were frequent. One night when I was writing my notes, I was startled by a snake licking my hand. Another time at night we found a snake next to us on our mattress. For two weeks we had a flying paradise tree snake living in our thatch roof. We knew this snake was probably harmless, so we let him/her be. Travel on the river was extremely difficult because the river from our camp to the nearest town, a 50-kilometer journey, was often impassable, clogged as it was with vegetation. I personally never had a bad experience with a crocodile but years later, a tourist visiting Camp Leakey was killed and eaten by a crocodile, as was a local police officer on an anti-logging patrol. The things that I remember from that decade are as if from another life: A life that can never be replicated by me or anybody else because in 50 years, Borneo has changed so much.
HUNGER IN THE FOREST
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 carrying any weight in my bag that all I took with me for a day’s follow was a bottle of cold black coffee. I just didn’t want to be incumbered because all day long I had to keep moving in order to search for orangutans or follow the ones I was observing. So I got used to not eating during the day. I had a quick breakfast in the morning, which was rice and canned sardines. Then I came back in the early evening and had more rice and sardines. It got to the point where my former husband Rod Brindamour refused to eat. He would stop eating for two or three days at a time because he couldn’t stomach the thought of more rice and sardines. But I never reached that point! To this day, I still like rice and sardines.
LIVING IN EDEN
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 there were very few of them. It was still small scale. They were Malay people who lived in bark-walled huts by the side of the river. They were very pleasant, low-key, and never really came into conflict with us. We always had very good relationships with them despite the fact that many times we asked them to leave when we caught them logging. It was probably helpful that in the early days we had been accompanied by government officials who gave us an aura of legitimacy. There were problems in parts of what was then Tanjung Puting Reserve but overall, the world was still innocent. Today it would be much harder to start work like I did 50 years ago. Now the world is much more incentivized financially and economically. In those past days, local people barely knew the value of money. It was a different world. It would be difficult to do what I did 50 years ago because the world has changed so much. For example, I was adopted and protected by the Governor of our province and his wife. Now it might be difficult just to meet them and have a conversation. Borneo has changed so much. Everything has changed so much.
EARLY ENCOUNTERS WITH WILD ORANGUTANS
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. When on the ground orangutans seem less wary of one person. A good example occurred when Rod and I were following a wild adult male orangutan. Suddenly, without any warning, Rod said he had run out of film and needed to get back to Camp Leakey immediately. I was left alone, sitting on the forest floor with a gigantic adult male eating termites just a few yards from me. The adult male orangutan slowly started wandering on the ground in my direction. As he meandered, he got stung by a wide column of fire ants that he had disturbed. It seemed to incite him. While I wrote in my notebook, he walked straight towards me from my left side. Right before he was about to pass in front of me, he stopped. I was mesmerized by his profile as he started his long call. A long call begins with a grumble and then peaks into bellows that are so powerful that they can be heard up to two miles away. He was so close I could have reached out and patted him on his back. I really didn’t know what to do. I continued writing in my notebook, and as he long called, my body vibrated from the intensity of his call. The call lasted several minutes. The entire time that he was standing in front of me and long calling, I was writing my notes. I was shaking because he was so close I could smell his sweat. He was so strong he could’ve done anything he wanted to me. I would have had no recourse. The local people like to say that a full-grown adult male orangutan is stronger than eight men. After the adult male finally finished his long call, without glancing at me, he just walked away. I looked down at my notebook. There were no words, just scribbles. Without any conscious intent on my part, I had been pretending to make observations. I had several close encounters on the ground with adult male orangutans. Many times, adult males charged me. I knew that I couldn’t outrun them in the dense understory of the tropical rainforest, so I stood facing them. If I ran I would have indicated that charging behavior on their part elicited a reaction on my part. I would have been training male orangutans to charge. I suddenly understood that my local assistants had trained a particular adult male orangutan to charge because they could not follow him for any length of time. His name was Zorro. I decided one day to follow Zorro myself. After following Zorro for a few hours, he charged me. Before he charged, he gave me a long hard stare. I continued standing immobile facing him while he charged. He came so close that he had to grab onto two small trees to come to a full stop before running into me. We stared at each other for long moments. Then I lowered my eyes and turned my head to look away. That pacified him. After about half a minute he moved away without looking at me. My local assistant was now about an inch directly behind me, seemingly using me as a shield. As Zorro moved away, my assistant whispered in my ear, “It takes a brave heart to follow adult male orangutans.” I recognized it as a compliment. I had been told about Western anthropologists who could not observe wild adult male orangutans because the adult males “jumped” down from the trees and charged the researchers at every initial encounter. This made it very difficult for the researchers. Obviously, the adult male orangutans had been inadvertently trained to intimidate the researchers by charging and getting rid of them.
Biruté Mary Galdikas
Biruté Mary Galdikas
Biruté Mary Galdikas
Biruté Mary Galdikas