Midpoint Series: Barbara Rojas Ayala on Birute Galdikas

This guest post from Bárbara Rojas Ayala is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

Dr. Biruté Marija Filomena Galdikas, born May 10th 1946, is the world’s foremost authority on orangutans and the founder of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), an organization that rescues and rehabilitates orangutans to be released back into their natural habitat in the Indonesian rainforest.

In 1966, fourteen years after she got inspired by Curious George and dreamed of becoming an explorer, Galdikas earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and zoology at UCLA.  Galdikas was an anthropology graduate student at UCLA when she met Dr. Louis Leakey, the archaeologist famous for discovering fossils of early humans in Africa, and convinced him to help her to study the “red apes” in the wild. In her own words: “I’ve always wanted to study the one primate who never left the Garden of Eden. I want to know what we left behind.” Three years later, in 1971, Dr. Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped her set up her research camp, Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea in Borneo.

Birute Galdikas

Dr. Birute Galdikas on the cover of National Geographic, October 1975, four years after the set up of Camp Leakey in Borneo.

Galdikas has devoted her life to the study of orangutans and to understanding why these great apes did not evolve to live in communities, like our ancestral apes did. She has conducted the longest continuous study of a wild mammal by one principal investigator in the world. This study started four decades ago after her first step in the tropical heath and peat swamp forest of Tanjung Puting in Borneo to document the ecology and behavior of the wild orangutans. Before her first trip to Tanjung Puting in 1971, several of her colleagues told her that she would not be able to study wild orangutans simply because the red apes were too elusive and wary in their deep swamps. Thanks to her determination and hard work in Camp Leakey, now we know that orangutans like to be left alone (an adult male’s range is at least 40 square kilometers!), that their birth interval averages 7.7 years, that they enjoy over 400 types of food, and how their social organization and mating system works.

Above: Film clip on Dr. Biruté Galdikas, her fascination with orangutans, and how to prevent their extinction.

Wild orangutans had their solitary lives unchanged for millions of years because the forest where they live had remained the same, with plenty of food and space for all of them. Today, their situation is changing due to the increasing destruction of their habitat and poaching. To bring awareness of their imminent extinction and the preservation of their tropical rainforests, Galdikas and her colleagues founded the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). Galdikas’ efforts are not limited to advocacy; the OFI focuses on the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans, so they can return to the wild when they are ready. In Camp Leakey, several women act as surrogate mothers for the rescued orphans: they give them baths, they feed them, they play with them, they sleep with them, just like their own mothers would do. Many of these orphaned orangutans were kept as illegal pets and/or their mothers were killed during the destruction of their natural habitat by palm oil companies.

Above: Movie clip from the film “Born to be Wild,” where you can see women acting as surrogate mothers for the orphaned orangutans at Camp Leakey.

Galdikas is Professor Extraordinaire at the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta and Full Professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. She has appeared twice on the cover of National Geographic and has published four books, including an autobiography. Galdikas has received several awards that recognize her efforts to study and prevent the extinction of wild orangutans, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the Institute of Human Origins Science Award, the P.E.T.A. Humanitarian Award, and the Indonesia’s Hero for the Earth Award (Kalpataru), among others.

— Bárbara Rojas Ayala

Barbara Rojas Ayala

Bárbara Rojas Ayala is a postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. She loves stars and hates gender schemas. Her expertise is in M dwarf stars, the most abundant type of star in the Milky Way. Using optical and infrared data, she unravels their fundamental parameters, which are crucial for the proper characterization of exoplanets around them.


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