Orangutans have a guardian in Biruté Mary Galdikas. As one of paleo-anthropologist Louis Leaky’s “trimates,” she pioneered scientific observation of these great apes in Borneo. (Leakey sponsored Galdikas, Dian Fossey, and Jane Goodall to study primates during the late ’50s-’70s.) In 1986, building on earlier research and conservation work, she founded Orangutan Foundation International to help rescue the Bornean orangutan’s plummeting population numbers, which have declined by more than an estimated 50 percent over the past 60 years, according to the IUCN, due primarily to habitat loss. Today Galdikas spends half the year in the Bornean rainforest and the other half in British Columbia as a professor at Simon Fraser University.
Tuesday, August 19 marks International Orangutan Day, part of a non-partisan initiative to promote orangutan conservation—there are two species of orangutan, which live in Borneo and Sumatra, and both are endangered. Science Friday recently caught up with Galdikas to hear about her adventures with the red ape, her affinity for the forest, and her advice to budding conservationists.
Science Friday: What first drove you to study primates?
Biruté Galdikas: I’ve wanted to understand human evolution since I was a toddler. I’m not joking. My father and my mother would sit me on their laps, show me the globe, and talk to me about exotic places and peoples long before I went to kindergarten. I was one of those kids who lay in the backyard at night and gazed up at the stars. You can’t do that now in places like Los Angeles because light pollution is too great, but in Toronto, when I was a kid, you could see the Milky Way. I would wonder about and ask those questions that all human beings tend to ask: Where did we come from? Where are we going? Who are we? The reason orangutans appealed so much to me is because they seemed to represent an ancestral state that humans left behind.
Does the public have any misconceptions about orangutans?
People don’t really know too much about orangutans. Twenty years ago when I talked to people about them, half thought they were an African species. Information from the Internet and television has made people more knowledgeable, but still, I’ll occasionally come across someone in this part of the world who thinks that orangutans are a type of gorilla. [Orangutans live only on the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The other great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas—all live in Africa.]
But I would say the biggest misconception is that people think orangutans are social animals. Monkeys, chimpanzees, and bonobos are all social, so people assume that orangutans must be, too. I’m not surprised. But one of the unique characteristics of orangutans is that they are more solitary—semi-solitary, I would say.
What has been your most exciting discovery during your work in Borneo?
There have been a few exciting discoveries. Some are as simple as watching an older orangutan male sitting in an ironwood tree. He reached out and broke a dead branch in half, using one half of it to scratch his back. And he did it so casually that it was as though he’d been doing it his entire life, and maybe, he had. That was the first instance I saw a wild orangutan making and using a tool. They are very familiar with branches. I also saw a juvenile orangutan take a branch and use it as a swatter to chase off a wasp. Orangutans never cease to astonish me. After 43 years, I still find them fascinating.
After studying and living with orangutans all this time, do you have a favorite individual?
They’re all my favorites; it’s like asking a parent who his or her favorite child is. I like them all, but there are different characteristics and different personalities. I have to say, the ones that I think about most are the ones that are no longer with us.
If you hadn’t become a primatologist, what career might you have pursued?
I might have been a forester, or a botanist, or an archeologist—I’ve always maintained an interest in human prehistory.
It sounds like you need to be outdoors.
Yes, I really like the forest. About a block and a half away from my childhood home in Toronto was High Park—basically a slice of wilderness in the middle of the city. My affinity for nature began there. Part of the charm of orangutans to me—in addition to being one of our closest living relatives and very similar to our ancestors in some ways—is that they are the people of the forest. [“Orangutan” is derived from the Indonesian words orang meaning “person,” and hutan meaning “forest.”]
Who is your scientific idol?
I look up to George Washington Carver. I thought he was a remarkable person to have gone from slavery to being an inventor and a scholar. To think of all the trials and tribulations he had to overcome. Ironically, I didn’t become aware of him until my daughter was in school. I helped her with a project for Black History Month, and her top two project choices were Michael Jordon and George Washington Carver. We went with George Washington Carver, and I found his story just absolutely remarkable.
Also, of course, Jane Goodall. We work in totally different geographical spheres, she in Africa and I in Asia, so I don’t really run into her unless it’s a scheduled event. Our relationship has always been sibling-like. We both had the same mentor, who was the late Louis Leakey.
I once read that your first library book was Curious George and that it inspired you to become an explorer. What are your other favorite books?
Aside from Curious George, which still remains one of my favorites, the Narnia Chronicles were among my favorite books as a child. I was spellbound by them. But really, I just like all books; I mean, I devour them like candy. I’m one of these people who is addicted to reading. You can’t put cereal boxes in front of me, because I’ll read them. I liked The Hobbit as a child and remember the librarian saying the book was above my reading age range. I reassured her that I could read it, and look—it turned out to be one of my favorites. When I was younger I read a lot of fiction, but once I entered college, I decided that my time was better used reading non-fiction.
What is your greatest goal for the future?
My biggest goal is to ensure that wild orangutan populations will not go extinct. This is the Orangutan Foundation International’s mission. We buy and protect forest. We built a herbarium to study the plants that the orangutans eat. And today, I am working to upgrade our information center at Camp Leakey [a research center] so that orangutans are better understood by visitors and thus better known in the world. In total, we get almost 15,000 visitors each year to Camp Leakey. Everything we do is to help orangutans survive—both individuals and, very importantly, biologically viable populations in the wild.
What is your advice to upcoming generations of conservationists?
My advice would be to get all the credentials, knowledge, and experience that you can. Be cognizant of the fact that most primates do not live in Western culture. So, to do conservation, you have to adapt to the cultures where they are. It is going to be tough going, because conservationists are fighting a global economy. You have to be well prepared, well trained, and you need emotional resilience. I think emotional strength is just as important as the experiences and the credentials—people have to be strong and not fall apart when things don’t go their way. It has to do with using your human abilities to the utmost.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
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