Featuring artwork by Miler Ximena Lopez & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.
The first time I read about orangutans was in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. It was an unexpected ending, but what I learnt about orangutans was that they are very human-like in their movements and behaviours, just more aggressive. Poe summarized what was known about orangutans in the late 19th century, but few others know more about these animals than Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas.
Born in Germany to Lithuanian refugee parents during WWII, Biruté and her family moved to Canada when she was 2 years old. Arriving in Quebec, but later moving to Toronto, Biruté remembers her childhood of frequent trips to Toronto’s High Park where she often walked around the wilder parts, pretending to be in a jungle and learning to climb trees. Biruté was fond of going to the library, and she recalls one of her first library borrows to be that of “Curious George”. Not only did the character of the chimp, George, inspire her, but also did the relationship he had with his closest friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. Biruté loved the library. She loved learning. She often borrowed books about ancient cultures, and when asked about her ambitions, she often said she would get a PhD.
By the age of 10, Biruté knew she wanted to learn more about orangutans because she was interested in human prehistory. She was fascinated to find out why did humans evolve from apes, but no new apes have evolved from humans. (She now has an answer to this question, but this is an impressive question for a 10 year old to ponder over).
In 1963, Biruté enrolled at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at the age of 17. But when her family moved to California, she enrolled at University of California Los Angelos (UCLA) where she enjoyed a level of informality and exploration of new ideas. She sampled psychology, anthropology, and zoology on her way to complete a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Zoology in 1966 jointly through UCLA and UBC. In 1969, she finished her Masters in Anthropology from UCLA. Her deep desire to work with orangutans was still alive, and when she got a chance to attend one of Dr. Louis Leakey’s lectures as part of her course, she knew he was the one who could help her accomplish this dream.
Meeting with Leakey
Leakey was already world renowned for his own work, but also for helping with the careers of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. These two women broke boundaries with respect to studying primates in the wild, each overcoming personal barriers with their respective primates. Both these women were already inspirations for Biruté as she grew up watching their adventures on National Geographic. Biruté said that she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what she did if it weren’t for these two women paving the way. (The trio were known as “Leakey’s Angels”).
When Biruté approached Leakey after his lecture; she told him about her interest in studying orangutans in their natural habitat. Leakey paid her no attention at first, but when she mentioned she had already contacted the Malaysian government and Tom Harrisson, a British conservationist and anthropologist living in Borneo, about the state of orangutans, Leakey realized she was serious about her quest. It took another 3 years for him to find funding for her research; a task that was made harder due to his failing health (he would, in fact, die within a year after Biruté arrived in Borneo).
“I’ve always wanted to study the one primate who never left the Garden of Eden. I want to know what we left behind.” — Biruté Galdikas.
Unravelling the mystery of orangutans
Though Biruté was excited about the new venture she was to undertake, this was not the attitude many people around her had. Before she left the US, her professors told her that studying orangutans in the wild just “couldn’t be done” because they were so elusive and wary, living almost entirely in deep swamps. But this did not deter Biruté’s ambition, and she took on the project to study the least understood great ape for her PhD.
At the age of 25, Biruté arrived in Borneo, a large island under the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia, with her then husband. There were no telephones, roads, electricity, television or regular mail service at the time. She and her husband moved into the jungles where most Westerners were not welcomed, living in a hut at the research station she named Camp Leakey.
When Biruté started studying orangutans, the only great apes found outside of Africa, she wanted to know why these great apes did not evolve the way our ancestors did into human beings, though they share 97% of their DNA. Human beings evolved from a different type of ancestral ape that learned how to live in communities; orangutans never did, and they have not changed in millions of years because the forests wherein they live have not changed. They have always had enough food and space to continue their solitary existence.
Orangutans live wild only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The two populations have been isolated for more than a million years and are considered separate species; the Bornean orangutans are slightly larger than the Sumatran variety. Precious little was known about orangutan biology before Biruté started studying them. She has discovered that the tree-dwelling animals spend as much as half the day on the ground. Adult males can reach five feet tall (though they rarely stand erect) and weigh up to 300 pounds. Females weigh about half as much and are four feet tall. Both sexes can live 30 to 50 years. At night they sleep in nests of sticks they build high in the treetops.
Biruté was the first to document the long orangutan birth interval averaging to 7.7 years. She catalogued about 400 types of fruits, flowers, bark, leaves and insects that wild orangutans eat, providing unprecedented detail about orangutan ecology.
Over her career, Biruté discovered a whole spectrum of behaviours including spatial memory, specialized botantical knowledge, relative longevity of mother-daughter bonds, and the complexity of orangutan relationships. One way she has learned to spot orangutans in the dense foliage was to listen for the sound of fruit peels and pits dropping to the ground; working in swamp conditions, watching out for toxic plants in leech-infested waters. She has endured death threats, near-fatal illness and bone-chilling encounters with wild animals, fire ants, and a wide variety of venomous snakes.
Biruté has learned more than any other human being about what it means to be an orangutan, and what she has found out is that orangutans like to be left alone. Orangutan males live solitary lives, looking for other orangutans only to mate. She’s made discoveries on how male orangutans communicate with each other, differentiating it from calls made to females. Female orangutans, on the other hand, will have their first baby at the age of 15–16 years. Baby orangutans cling to their mother’s fur until they are four years old. They are very dependent and remain with the mother until 9–10 years of age. Mothers pass on survival tips to their offsprings, including the botanical knowledge they possess on how and where to find food, strength training, and building nests.
In addition to physical and behavioural knowledge, Biruté and her team have contributed to veterinary medical knowledge about orangutans, including treatments for malaria, tapeworm parasites and throat-pouch infections. Biruté’s work on orangutans earned her a doctorate in 1978 from UCLA, but it did not only include learning from wild orangutans.
Rehabilitation of orangutans
Moving to Borneo, Biruté and her then husband very quickly learnt of the illegal practice of keeping pet orangutans. Though authorities knew of this illegal practice, cultural beliefs kept them from taking any real action against it. Not only were orangutans being threatened by human beliefs, their habitats was rapidly decreasing due to loggers, gold and zircon miners, and largely by palm oil plantations. Often in this conflict with humans, mother orangutans are killed, leaving behind babies that are either poached as illegal pets, or left to fend for themselves. So the work at Camp Leakey became two fold: to study wild orangutans and to rehabilitate orphaned and rescued ones.
Biruté herself worked to balance the two roles she played at the camp: (1) to mother the orphaned orangutans that clung to her almost all the time; (2) to study the wild orangutans for her PhD. Not only was it difficult to play the two roles, there was added responsibility of being a biological mother to her son, and a mother to her now husband’s children. But that was not it; she also had to run the organization while writing her PhD dissertation. This was a balance that she could not do alone. She gives huge credit to her support system and her team.
While Biruté studied wild orangutans, she also made keen observations about the orangutans at Camp Leakey. She discovered that their cognitive abilities are amongst the highest of all non-human primates, observing that the orangutans would often mimic the activities they saw around Camp Leakey, including stirring eggs and flour like the cooks in an attempt to make pancakes. She recounted a story about one specific female orangutan that identified with two female students at Camp Leakey. This orangutan broke into the students’ room while they were out, and used their makeup as she had seen them apply on a number of occasions. Not only did the orangutan understand what they did and mimicked their movements, but she also identified specifically with the female students. In addition, occasionally when orangutans were given store-bought ramen noodles packages, they were seen sprinkling the accompanying salt onto the noodles before eating them. This emphasizes their cognitive abilities.
In 1986, Biruté co-founded and became the president of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), a non-profit to help fund Camp Leakey and support orangutan rehabilitation and forest protection. Her efforts with OFI have gone beyond advocacy. The ongoing birth of new orangutans from those rehabilitated orangutans is part of the longest continual study of a single species.
Camp Leakey releases about 30 rehabilitated orangutans into the wild every year, but more are always coming in as orphans are found as a result of palm oil plantation development. About 330-orphaned orangutans live at the center with 200 men and women who help raise them, helping with health checks, feedings, and strength building. The centre has rescued about 400 orangutans to date, successfully releasing them to the wild.
As recently as 1900, more than 300,000 orangutans roamed freely across the jungles of Southeast Asia and southern China. Today an estimated 48,000 orangutans live in Borneo and another 6,500 in Sumatra, making the Sumatran orangutans critically endangered. Though the number of the Borneo orangutan population is higher, fragmentation of the population due to palm oil plantations also classifies them as endangered. Biruté works with local communities to buy forestland, faster than plantation companies, and set it aside for wildlife that thrives there, including the orangutan.
A commentary on humans
As Biruté studies the solitary cousin of humans, she’s left wondering at the mystery of human beings. Humans, who are normally social creatures, are becoming more individualistic like the orangutans.
“Many of today’s problems are a result of abandoning our human biological roots. We must look to our distinctive gregarious human heritage; living and working in family groups and communities if we want to be successful. Otherwise we are just stressed out ‘orangutans’ in an urban setting” — Biruté Galdikas.
Biruté is currently a full professor at Simon Fraser University in BC, Canada, a Professor Extraordinaire at Universitas Nasional in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the president of Orangutan Foundation International in L.A. California. She divides her time amongst all these important roles.
1946 Born in Germany.
1948 Move to Canada growing up in Toronto, Ontario.
1963 Enrolled at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
1964 Moved to California with her family, and enrolled in UCLA for natural sciences.
1966 Graduated with a Bachelors’ in Psychology and Zoology jointly from UCLA and UBC.
1969 Graduated from UCLA with a Masters’ in Anthropology. During her degree, she met Dr. Louis Leakey after attending one of his lectures.
1971 Moved to Borneo, Indonesia with her then husband to begin her PhD study on wild orangutans.
1978 Earned her PhD in Anthropology from UCLA on her work on orangutans.
1986 Co-founded the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in L.A. California
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About the author:
DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY
Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories
Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.
About the artist:
MILER XIMENA LÓPEZ
Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories
Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.
About this series:
Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.
Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!
-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director