Author Tags: Anthropology, Environment, Essentials 2010
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Biruté Mary Galdikas is the foremost protector of orangutans on the planet. Also known as Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas, she is frequently described as the third woman sent by paleontologist Dr. Louis B. Leakey to study primates in their natural habitat, after Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, and is therefore known as one of Leakey’s Angels. Although she was dubbed “Queen of the Orangutans” in Italy and profiled by the New York Times and Time, she has not been one to play to the media. She is the only foreign-born person to win the Hero of the Earth Award (Kalpataru), from the Indonesian government. She has studied and protected orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia, since 1971, and she has also long been associated with the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University.
Galdikas’ parents met in a refugee camp after fleeing Lithuania at the end of WWII. She was born in West Germany in 1946 but came to Canada at age two, settling in Toronto, then moving to Vancouver in 1962. She married Rod Brindamour while attending the University of California. After attending a Leakey lecture in Los Angeles, she asked Leakey for his help in order to study orangutans. “Are you willing to have your appendix removed?” Leakey asked. It was a test. Galdikas offered to have her tonsils taken out, too. Leakey suggested Brindamour accompany her to Borneo to photograph orangutans. Three years later, in 1971, the young couple left for Borneo, stopping at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., for training and equipment. They flew to Kenya to visit Leakey, briefly acquired some field training from Goodall in Tanzania, stopped in Pakistan, India and Nepal, and then arrived in Jakarta. “At first I thought we would be just holding down the fort until reinforcements came,” she recalls. “I never envisioned that we were the cavalry.”
Gradually they accumulated sightings, allocating names according to Jane Goodall’s method: related apes were always given names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. “What started out as an academic study,” she says, “quickly evolved into a passion.” Dr. Leakey died of a heart attack in 1972 but Goodall encouraged Galdikas and Brindamour to persist. National Geographic arrived with a camera crew in 1975. Binti Paul Galdikas Brindamour was born in 1976 and grew up with orangutans as playmates, imitating orangutans as his siblings. The marriage buckled but Galdikas didn’t. Rod Brindamour left for Canada to pursue a career in computer science. In 1981, Galdikas married her co-worker Pak Bohap and they have several children. Galdikas’ Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo (1995) was followed by Orangutan Odyssey (1999) and Great Ape Odyssey (2005).
Galdikas has proven that orangutans have the longest birth intervals of any mammal: a wild adult female has young once every eight years. Orangutan females give birth alone. Mothers will carry their young for four years; some are not weaned until six or seven years. Male-to-male competition for females is fierce. Forced copulation exists. Orangutans share 97% of human DNA, making them the third-closest relations to humans after chimpanzees and gorillas.
Biruté Mary Galdikas is the foremost protector of orangutans on the planet. Also known as Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas, she is invariably described as the third woman sent by paleontologist Dr. Louis B. Leakey to study primates in their natural habitat, after Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall, and is therefore known as one of "Leakey's Angels." She is an Officer of the Order of Canada and also the only foreign-born person ever to win the Kalpataru, Hero of the Environment Award, from the Indonesian government. While studying orangutans for more than thirty-five years, Biruté Mary Galdikas has also taught as a Professor in the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University.
Galdikas' parents met in a refugee camp after fleeing Lithuania at the end of World War II. She was born in West Germany in 1946 but came to Canada at age two, settling in Toronto, then moving to Vancouver in 1962. After high school in B.C., she met and married Rod Brindamour while attending University of California in Los Angeles. There she also attended a Leakey lecture. Afterwards she asked Leakey for his help in order to study orangutans. Are you willing to have your appendix removed?" Leakey asked. It was a test. Galdikas offered to have her tonsils taken out, too. Leakey suggested Brindamour accompany her to Borneo to photograph orangutans. Three years later, the young couple left for Borneo in 1971, stopping at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. for training and equipment. They flew to Kenya to visit Leakey, briefly acquired some field training from Goodall in Tanzania, stopped in Pakistan, India and Nepal, then arrived in Jakarta. "At first I thought we would be just holding down the fort until reinforcements came," she recalls, "I never envisioned that we were the cavalry."
In their first year at Camp Leakey the couple lost more than twenty pounds each, they suffered mysterious infections, humidity rotted their boots and they lived in a single logger's cabin. They quickly learned orangutans were commonly kept as illegal pets. The first Indonesian phrase Rod Brindamour learned was, 'This officer is here with me so he can confiscate your orangutan.' They also learned the hard way that orangutans are loners who live in treetops. One Japanese scientist had searched for two months without a single sighting. Gradually they accumulated sightings, allocating names according to Jane Goodall's method: related apes were always given names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. "What started out as an academic study," she says,” quickly evolved into a passion." Dr. Leakey died of a heart attack in 1972. For his followers it was a serious setback emotionally. Jane Goodall encouraged Galdikas and Brindamour to persist. National Geographic arrived with a camera crew in 1975. Binti Paul Galdikas Brindamour was born in 1976. Their son was a mini-Tarzan. Binti grew up with orangutans as playmates, imitating orangutans as his siblings. It was worrisome for both parents because one of Camp Leakey's more violent orangutans, Sugito, had killed other orphans. The marriage buckled under the pressure; Birute didn't. Rod Brindamour left for Canada to pursue a career in computer science. He soon remarried whereupon Birute took Binti to live with Rod Brindamour and his new wife. (Jane Goodall had previously made a similar decision when she sent her son to live in London without her.)
Galdikas has published her research in Science magazine. She has been dubbed 'Queen of the Orangutans' in Italy and profiled by The New York Times and Time, but she has not been one to play to the media. In 1981 Birute married her co-worker Pak Bohap. They have had several children. When the children appear in her slides during presentations, she doesn't add any sentimental or intimate comments. Whenever she has returned to Simon Fraser University to teach primatology, her husband Pak Bohap has remained at Camp Leakey to maintain her research and conservation site. Galdikas has established that orangutans have the longest birth intervals of any mammal: A wild adult female has young once every eight years. Orangutan females give birth' alone. Mothers will carry their young for four years; some are not weaned until six' or seven years. "Orangutans are excruciatingly vulnerable to extinction," she says. Orangutans are also accomplished toolmakers and imitators. Male-to-male competition for females is fierce. Forcible copulation (rape) exists. Orangutans share 97% of human DNA. They are the third-closest associates to humans: after chimpanzees and gorillas. But that's not why they're so important. "Orangutans have never left the Garden of Eden," Galdikas says, "They have: never left the canopy of the rainforest." By this Galdikas means that orangutans still occupy their original habitat: unlike more adaptive chimps, gorillas and humans. It therefore follows that the mysteries of human behaviour and instincts might be divulged most readily if we can continue to study orangutans in the wild.
Galdikas holds a Ph.D in anthropology from UCLA and has served as president of the Orangutan Foundation International in Los Angeles. Her memoir is Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo (Little, Brown 1995). Great Ape Odyssey (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), with 125 photographs by Karl Ammann, is her follow-up to Orangutan Odyssey (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), co-authored with Nancy Briggs and photograper Karl Ammann.
Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo (Little, Brown 1995)
Orangutan Odyssey (Harry N. Abrams, 1999), co-authored with Nancy Briggs and photograper Karl Ammann.
Great Ape Odyssey (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), with 125 photographs by Karl Ammann,
Biographical Publications by other authors
Montgomery, Sy. 2003 Walking with the Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.
Gallardo, Evelyn. 1993 Among the Orangutans: The Birute Galdikas Story. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Dr. Biruté Galdikas in Vancouver, 1993
SPEAKING TO A NEAR-CAPACITY crowd at the Vogue Theatre, the world's foremost protector of orangutan habitat and a surrogate parent to 100 rehabilitated orangutans, as well as a mother to three human children along the way, looks tired, vaguely beat. Twenty-two years of living in the Borneo jungle, battling poachers and loggers, enduring malaria, typhoid, leeches, toxic tree sap bums, dengue fever and former headhunters who eat orangutans will do that for a person...
We knew in advance, thanks to a CBC- TV documentary called "The Third Angel", that Galdikas no longer resembles the Madonna-with-orangutan featured in Evelyn Gallardo's new biography for young readers, Among the Orangutans: The Birute Galdikas Story (Chronicle/Raincoast $8.95/$17.95). At the podium for the inaugural fundraiser of the newly formed Orangutan Foundation of Canada, Canada's wild woman of Borneo is surprisingly circumspect, almost dour, as she dutifully narrates her slide show.
It's a culture shock to find someone on a stage not trying to be liked. Her potentially worshipful audience is hoping for humour or inspirational anger, and will get neither. A former National Geographic cover girl, Galdikas has become a hard-core realist. "Being an ecologist or a biologist is almost irrelevant to conservation," she says, "Increasingly conservationists must be political."
Galdikas, a lecturer in primatology at SFU, recently received a United Nations Global 500 Award in Beijing and a 1993 Chevron Conservation Award. She's a bona fide global eco-star. But even with her reputation as one of 'Leakey's Primates' or 'Leakey's Angels', Galdikas has to watch her step in, of all places, Vancouver. In the audience tonight is a representative from the Indonesian consulate. Galdikas praises the Indonesian government for its cooperation. East Timor isn't mentioned. Her audience doesn't know, and isn't told, that Galdikas has yet to be re-issued her annual permit from the Indonesia Institute of Science to continue her research in September.
Galdikas notes the Indonesian government has now declared its number one priority is 'jobs' and she leaves it at that. The logging companies don't want her back in the 300,000-hectare Tanjung Puting Reserve. She shows us one slide of the Korea-based logging consortium that has moved into her peninsula jutting into the Java Sea. She is only obliquely critical. She can only afford to be blunt about humankind in general. "One thing we know for sure is that humans don't relinquish power very easily," she says, "Human capacity for greed is an almost inexhaustible commodity."
Local emcee Gamet Hardy has spent two weeks at Galdikas' remote Camp Leakey compound, 30 miles up the winding Sekonyer River from the town of Pangkalan Bun, in Borneo. He repeatedly refers to Galdikas as ' the professor' . One gets the impression 'the professor' is not always a happy camper. Nonetheless Galdikas is willing to make a perfunctory fuss about the City of Vancouver's proclamation of 'Protect Orangutan Day' on July 8. She must play every angle. "All I can do is squeak piteously in the dark," she says.
The professor's audience waits politely for Galdikas to finish so they can buy souvenir t-shirts in the lobby. Copies of the book will be snapped up, too. But before they go, Galdikas lets slip something which reveals something of the fierceness of her character, and the depth of her scientific but also moral vision. "AIDS", she says, "is probably directly related to the degradation of the environment of this planet." Galdikas apparently accepts the green monkey theory. Monkey brain eating. Retrogression. The rapaciousness of humankind. Coupled with her earlier reference to orangutans still inhabiting the Garden of Eden, this remark indicates Biruté Galdikas has a great deal more to say about humankind than she's willing to share during the course of a slide show. No doubt Dr. Galdikas can sometimes be prickly, circumspect, stubborn, tired, arrogant and not much of an entertainer. Thank God she's on the planet.
BCBW AUTUMN 1993
Apes, Great and Small, in Peril
from [Simon Fraser University News 2005]
By Biruté Mary Galdikas
The first time I heard Canada’s Governor General, Michaelle Jean, mention “breaking down solitudes,” I thought that it was an exquisite reference to issues in Canadian society.
But the second time I heard the phrase, it brought to mind orangutans, the most solitary of the apes, “the solitudes.” The “breaking down” implied the orangutans’ imperiled state on the edge of extinction.
When I first started studying orangutans in the great tropical rain forests of Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), all that science knew about these enigmatic red apes in the wild might have filled a page. That was almost 35 years ago. We now know much more about orangutans but, unfortunately, we also know that orangutan populations have declined precipitously over the last few decades and that 80 per cent of orangutan habitat has been decimated.
Ten years ago Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) proclaimed the first week in November as International Orangutan Awareness Week in an attempt to publicize the plight of the wild orangutan to a seemingly oblivious world. OFI (www.orangutan.org) put up a website (www.ioaw.org) and encouraged supporters to hold events, give talks and bring attention in any way they could to the dire situation facing orangutans in the wild.
Along with the African chimpanzees and gorillas, the Asian orangutans are great apes, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees are so closely related to humans that their genome differs by only 1.2 per cent in terms of single nucleotide changes and, once blood types are matched, chimpanzees can receive blood transfusions from us and vice versa. Gorillas, the greatest of the great apes in terms of size, are also very closely related to humans who, in some ways, are just another African ape.
All great apes share with humans high cognitive abilities, similar emotions, foresight, excellent memories, self-recognition and self-awareness, and are capable of symbolic communication, insight, imitation and innovation as well as generalization, abstract thought and problem solving. When we look into their eyes, we see something there that we recognize. Their eyes reflect our own.
Less known are the small apes, gibbons and the siamang. After the great apes, the small apes are our closest living relatives. Found only in Southeast Asia and China, small apes are territorial, monogamous, and the acrobats of the primate world, swinging from tree to tree like the “flying young man on the swinging trapeze” and then soaring mid-air as they let go of one branch and fly to reach another. Certainly, this soaring locomotion is their form of genius. Gibbons are also known for their soprano vocalizations. Gibbons don’t use tools and don’t perform well in laboratory tests, scoring below some monkeys on intelligence tests. But studies of their brain show cerebellums that fall on the great ape side of the divide. And I personally have seen one captive gibbon, to my amazement, use tools, twigs, to scratch himself. I think gibbons are underrated. They are as flighty, edgy, and fragile as the birds with which they share the treetops. But they are brighter, smarter and more adaptable than they have been given credit for in textbooks.
Unfortunately, all apes, great and small, are in dire straits. All face extinction as their habitats are destroyed. When I first arrived in Borneo over 90 per cent of the island consisted of primary tropical rain forest, the world’s second-largest continuous expanse of forest after the Amazon Basin. But now Borneo’s forest is in retreat, like the forests of equatorial Africa, under relentless pressure from the forces of the global economy. Like a high-speed locomotive with no one at the controls, the global economy hurtles recklessly into the future, overwhelming everything in its path, destroying habitats and accelerating the extinction of plants and animals as well as the destruction of traditional human communities that co-existed with and sheltered the ecosystems in which the apes lived.
The prognosis for all ape populations in the wild is bleak. As habitat loss continues, ape populations decline and fragment, creating smaller populations that are increasingly vulnerable to local extinction. Local extinctions are common. In the African nation of Togo, once 33 per cent forest, the forest is now almost gone. Not surprisingly, the western chimpanzee recently went extinct in Togo. In Nigeria and Cameroon, the Cross River Gorilla has the lowest population of any African great ape with only 150-200 left. In China, due to recent industrial development, the call of the Hainan gibbon can only be heard in captivity. On the island of Java the endemic gibbon is found in only two protected mountainous areas and numbers less than two thousand. In Sumatra the orangutan population is critically endangered; some populations number only in the dozens.
As I write, International Orangutan Awareness Week is in full swing. But what does it matter? Jane Goodall has been on the road tirelessly since 1986 championing chimpanzee conservation and animal rights. Yet chimpanzee habitats are shrinking. In West and Central Africa, chimpanzees are just meat for the pot. Unless politicians, rock stars, and governments embrace the cause of great and small ape extinction in a major way, apes will go extinct within the next 50 years.
The one bright spot remains the mountain gorillas. Dian Fossey gave up her life in 1985 for the gorillas. The tourist industry that followed helped provide stability and money, allowing for a 17 per cent increase in gorilla numbers since the last census. It costs $50 for a park ranger to guide you to the cabin where Dian lived and the grave where she lies buried. It costs $350 per day for one hour with the gorillas. The mountain gorillas are as expensive as some lawyers. That has been their salvation.
I’m not saying we need more martyrs to ensure the survival of the great and small apes but the Hollywood movie, Gorillas in the Mist, sure helped. And International Orangutan Awareness Week also probably helps hold back the tide. It could be a lot worse. Orangutans could be extinct throughout their entire range and not just locally. We need a Mission Impossible like those led by Bono and Bill Gates in their fight against global poverty and disease. We need to pressure our governments to save the great and small apes. An occasional billionaire would help, too.
Why save the apes? I could give ecological and even economic answers but the truth is greater. The great and small apes represent who we once were and where we came from. They are not our ancestors but our siblings, brother and sister species, and our cousins. They led the way and we followed, eventually overtaking them as we became human, and then we left them behind. That separation should not be their death sentence. What consolation solitude if we remain the only species in our family left behind on a planet endlessly spinning with no close kin to call our own?