Biruté Galdikas and her all-consuming love for orangutans – Sustainability Story of the Week
This week I’m telling you about one of nature’s greatest love stories. World-renowned primatologist Biruté Galdikas has always been drawn to orangutans, captivated by their eyes… For her, it was love at first sight.
However, earning the orangutans’ trust and love was a game of patience. They are solitary and very elusive creatures. It took Biruté Galdikas 12 years to finally be accepted amongst them! She has been studying and working with the red-haired apes for the last 46 years. Now, that’s what I call commitment!
Orangutans are only found on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. When Biruté Galdikas first stepped into the lush rainforests of Borneo to start her research in 1971, very little was known about them. She was the first person to witness a wild orangutan birth and to document an orangutan using a stick as a tool in the wild. She also discovered that orangutans are not strict vegetarians.
In 1978, she published her ground-breaking Ph.D. thesis. Acclaimed by the academic and scientific world, she became one of the world’s greatest primatologists, alongside Jane Goodall who studies chimpanzees and Dian Fossey who studied mountain gorillas. Together, they changed the way the world looks at the great apes and inspired generations of researchers.
She quickly became aware of the many threats orangutans are facing, from deforestation to poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Her boundless love for orangutans only grew stronger as her research progressed and protecting them became her Number 1 priority. The elusive nature of orangutans and her focus shifting increasingly to conservation made it hard for her to be a prolific researcher. Since her Ph.D. thesis, she has published very little, which has drawn sharp criticism from the academic world. However, as she put it, it’s really a matter of priorities, hers just weren’t the same:
“When a species is threatened with extinction, I don’t understand how anyone can say it is more important to study than to save it.”
Therefore, she made it her life’s work to protect her beloved orangutans. The rehabilitation of ex-captive orangutans soon became the biggest project of her life. In response to her ceaseless conservation efforts, the Indonesian government declared Tanjung Putting, the area where she had been working, a national park in 1982, putting an end to illegal wildlife trade in the region. In 1986, she founded the Orangutan Foundation International.
However, her rehabilitation work has been surrounded with controversy. Scientists have argued that her reintroduction methods were flawed. They stated that the level of human contact at Biruté Galdikas’ rehabilitation centre is too high and that releasing rescued orangutans back into wild orangutan populations poses a risk of disease transmission. There have also been reports of very large numbers of rescued orangutans being kept illegally at the rehabilitation centre in Pasir Panjang.
There is no doubt that Biruté Galdikas is only guided by her love for orangutans and the work she has accomplished is truly remarkable. She has released over 200 orangutans back into the wild and significantly improved wild orangutans’ survival chance at Tanjung Putting national park by bringing the fight to the destructive palm oil industry and the illegal wildlife trade.
However, could it be that Biruté Galdikas’ all-consuming passion for orangutans and desire to save them has blinded her to the orangutans’ needs? People who have crossed her path often speak of her as a woman who will put orangutans before people, painting her as a somewhat unpleasant character. Is she taking it too far, pushing away people who could help her build a safer and happier future for wild and rescued orangutans?
Isn’t that all too often the attribute of passionate people who will do absolutely anything to protect who and what they love? Passion can sometimes get the better of people, leading them to choices that, from the outside, seem hard to understand. Dian Fossey herself was described as a difficult and tyrannical person, who would stop at nothing to protect the mountain gorillas, not even death…
Orangutan experiences are some of the most popular trips at Eco Companion, here’s some of the highlights.