The Last of the Orangutans: One Woman’s Quest to Save a Dying Species

By Michelle McAlister

Although the orangutan is the least-known and the rarest of all the great apes, it is the most benevolent and civilized of all primates. The epitome of jungle etiquette mastered, these thoughtful apes use leaves as napkins to wipe their chins, as gloves to handle spiny fruits, as seat cushions in prickly trees, and rain or shine, they use leaves as parasols and ponchos to shelter their dignified selves from the elements of their rainforest habitat.

Few know more about these red-haired Indonesian apes, which new research shows could be our evolutionarily closest living relatives, than revered primatologist Biruté Galdikas, 64 and one of the world's foremost authorities on Asia's only great ape. A Professor Extraordinaire at the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta and full professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, Galdikas has spent more than four decades studying the emotions and intellects of these apes, earning the noteworthy accomplishment of having carried out the longest study by one person of any wild mammal globally. With just 25,000 to 30,000 of these pensive creatures remaining in Borneo and Sumatra, Galdikas has been forced to navigate the concrete jungle of Los Angeles in her efforts to save them.

"I think I was born to study orangutans because the first time I saw pictures of them there was something about them that intrigued me. And then I saw them in person and that fascination with them just never left," mused Galdikas, who is now in Borneo surrounded by orangutans—her childhood dream fulfilled. Today, in the muddy waters of the Sekonyer River in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, Galdikas often sits in her wooden boat chugging along through the steamy stretches of Southeast Asia rescuing orangutans. At two degrees below the equator, however, few would call this a joy ride. Beyond muggy, sub-tropical malaria is as common as the ceaseless and cacophonous chirping of the cicada. But what is not common here is the wildorangutan, the numbers of which have been declining at alarming rates. Classified as endangered and critically endangered by The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, Bornean and Sumatran orangutans appear to need all the help they can get, and Galdikas is determined to provide it—but it isn’t coming easy.

Quiet and soft-spoken, Galdikas's disposition mirrors the unpretentious intellect of the orangutans she has devoted her life to saving. In 1986, she cofounded the Los Angeles-based Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). The foundation's one-room office is homey and unassuming. Passersby would scarcely know that within the walls of this converted, turn-of-the-century Spanish home off Wilshire Boulevard, a handful of people are trying to save the lives of more than 350 orphan orangutans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Galdikas conducts her research at Camp Leakey, OFI's central research base in the heart of the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Kalimantan—a swamp-encircled conglomerate of thatch huts with canvas roofs protected by orangutan-proof door locks. OFI's global effort to the conservation and understanding of orangutans and their habitat boasts of the rescue and release of more than 450 orangutans back into OFI-protected rainforest. Although Galdikas has twice been featured on the cover of National Geographic and is profiled in the current IMAX film "Born to be Wild," OFI is still struggling to raise funds necessary to buy rainforest land needed to return refugee orphans back to the wild, and the dragging global economic problems have only hampered the cause. "Economic recessions are always difficult for nonprofit organizations," Alie Ashbury, former assistant to Galdikas and a Graduate student in conservation, says. "OFI is entirely run on donations from its generous members. When Western donors experience difficult times, so does OFI."

At Camp Leakey, the work is slow going, yet enduring. "We often have to build a will to survive in these precious babies," says Rebecca Reeder, OFI's coordinator of orphan adoptions—a program that lets conservation supporters "adopt" an orphan orangutan—, who just returned from Camp Leakey. "They like to be tickled, and yes, they laugh. It's sort of a little huffing sound. The toddler orangutans love to play chase. All you have to do is pretend you're running away, look over your shoulder and here they come. You can see them smile and enjoy it, and for a moment maybe they forget they are orphans," she says.

Born in Germany to Lithuanian parents and raised in Canada, Galdikas's international labor of love in the Bornean jungles began in 1971. When she was a student in the University of California, Los Angeles's master's program in anthropology, she caught the eye of visiting guest lecturer, Louis Leakey, the famed anthropologist who discovered some of mankind's earliest remains in Ethiopia, Lucy. Patiently, Galdikas waited in the hallway until Leakey finished his lecture and the crowd had thinned. She was looking for help getting to Borneo, and it was Leakey she eventually convinced to help get her there. Leakey had already recruited and mentored two other well-known female anthropologists to study primates in the wild: Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver in the movie "Gorillas in the Mist," who was murdered defending the mountain gorillas she studied in Rwanda). Galdikas became his third female recruit, and who have been nicknamed "Leakey's Angels". But unlike their vacuous TV counterparts, these three superhero scientists have accumulated more than 110 years of study into the lives of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. But there is still much more work to be done.

Despite Galdikas's research and rehabilitation efforts over the past decades, a recent report released by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted that the number of orangutans in their native homeland of Borneo and Sumatra has plummeted by a whopping 91 percent in the past century. Galdikas has seen firsthand the effects of this near decimation of the primate, which the IUCN attributes to the illegal clear-cutting of rainforest by palm oil exporters. "We live in a world where environmental conservation is pitted up against economic profitability," said Alie Ashbury, Galdikas's assistant. "In short-sighted monetary terms, it makes more sense to cut down forests and plant palm oil than to conserve orangutans. OFI's greatest challenge is to shift this paradigm."

Nonetheless, Galdikas has remained relentlessly dedicated and determined, fueled by a good sense of humor and copious amounts of coffee. "Nothing has stopped her from doing her work," Reeder says. "The adjective 'tireless' is probably overused, but I can tell you that she never stops working."

After nearly 100,000 hours of observation in the wilds of Borneo, Galdikas's dedication proves she's not going anywhere, which is some good news for the last of the orangutans. "It makes me feel melancholy, but it also spurs me to greater energy to try and stop some of these abuses of habitat and of the orangutan populations. You demolish a population and they (orangutans) don't spring back. It takes them years to spring back, possibly even centuries."


How you can help:

Orangutan Foundation International

"Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest"
Sponsor a plot of prime rain forest orangutan habitat in Borneo,