UNLV had the privilege of hosting one of the world’s leading primatologists, ethologists, and conservationists, on May 5, 2009. For the past thirty years, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas has spent the majority of her time in the Indonesian rainforest, tracking the most elusive great ape: the orangutan. In that time, she has not only been an eyewitness, but also a great adversary, to the destruction of the rainforest.
As Dr. Galdikas takes to the podium, and addresses the noisy crowd, one would not expect that this soft spoken, kind hearted woman has led patrols to stop illegal logging in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Indonesian Borneo. However, with seven simple words she demands our attention and the crowd goes silent, “Hello, I am Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas.” For a next hour and half, we sit mesmerized as she takes us on a journey into her life’s work, saving the orangutans of Indonesian Borneo. Illegal logging, she explains, used to be the biggest threat to the orangutan’s habitat.
Today, however, the orangutans face a much larger threat, the production of palm oil. Dr. Galdikas explains that palm oil, which is found in everything from chips and cookies to laundry soap and even biofuel, is now the greatest threat facing the rainforest. Plantations, hoping to cash in on this easy to grow, high demand crop, have sprung up all over the island of Borneo. Unfortunately, these plantations need land. The humid warm climate of the Indonesian rainforest is the perfect environment for palm oil production.
When Dr. Galdikas unwinds her story, we are able to experience a brief glimpse into the difficulty of her life’s work. As Dr. Galdikas related, protection of the orangutan is ever-changing. You begin to understand that one person cannot do this alone. In the new global economy, we must all be diligent and responsible for the well-being of our primate relatives and all species, with which we share this planet.