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
ARRIVAL IN EDEN
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.
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…..Read More
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 GaldikasRead More
Christmas Day (Dec 25th) 1971
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.
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.…..Read More
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 …..Read More
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.
Born to Study Orangutans
"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.
A Culmination of Effort
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.
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 that resembled a Garden of Eden. The local people practiced some illegal logging but ...Read More
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Tanjung Puting Gains Protection
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.
Student Spotlight: Edy Hendras
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.
FIRST MOTHER: SISWOYO
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
Orangutan Foundation International is Born
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
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 ...Read More
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
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.
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.
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.
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....Read More
An Indomitable Spirit
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.
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.
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.
EMPLOYEE SPOTLIGHT: IBU RENIE
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.Read More
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
Illegal Logging Threatens to Destroy Indonesia’s Forests, Including National Parks
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....
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.
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)
to reveal memorable moments from each of the five decades! #50yearsinthefield